While the media plays a role, the agency, domestic scientists and fishing industry are mainly responsible for failing to address the problem and keeping the public in the dark, Komatsu and other critics say. During his tenure at the agency until 2005, regulators were often more intent on protecting fishermen than resources and reluctant to publicize information about declining stocks or impose catch limits, he said.
“Government officials don’t want to accept the facts,” Komatsu said. “Their constituents are fishermen. ... In order to be successful as a government official, you have to listen to the fishermen because they are closely connected to the politicians. It’s all very short-sighted.”
Toshio Katsukawa, a fisheries professor at Mie University in western Japan, said the industry has been allowed to pursue indiscriminate fishing for years.
“This is undermining Japan’s own national interests,” he said.
That may have been a valid criticism in the past, agency deputy director-general Masanori Miyahara said. However, over the past five or six years “our policy has changed,” he said in an interview in his Tokyo office.
“Previously, there was almost no control over the bluefin catch because so many fishermen were catching them. The JFA just gave up,” Miyahara said. “But now we are in a position of control.”
He added that limits imposed in 2011 on domestic fishermen using large, encircling “purse seine” nets — which scoop up vast amounts of fish, including many young ones — during the spawning season in the Sea of Japan have reduced the catch of juveniles by more than one-quarter.
Japan also has joined 2011 “effort limits” — such as limiting the number of vessels — called for by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, the regional fisheries body that monitors the western two-thirds of the Pacific Ocean. The commission will meet in Tokyo in September to consider whether to strengthen catch restrictions.
Japan also has placed caps on the number of tuna farms, which take young tuna caught at sea and raise them in coastal waters, and is registering its 13,000 independent fishermen to better monitor their catch, Miyahara said.
However, conservation groups say the measures are full of loopholes and not well enforced, while Japanese fishermen complain that South Korean boats are not similarly constrained.
While Japanese consumers are very sensitive about food safety and quality, awareness about resource management is still not very prevalent. Major retailer Aeon Co has 50 products with a special blue label from the Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies sustainable marine foods. However, these products account for only 3 percent of Aeon’s total fish sales.
Some US and European sushi restaurants have removed bluefin from their menus, but Nagayama has not heard of that in Japan.
He tries to minimize the amount of the fish he uses, but says he needs to have it on hand because customers request it. A piece of pink o-toro fatty tuna goes for ￥2,000 at his shop.
“We’re a top-end sushi bar, so we need to have it,” the 71-year-old chef said.