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[Mainichi Daily News] Editorial: Listing bluefin tuna as endangered extreme, but Japan must watch step on int'l stage

March 12, 2010 -

(c) 2010 THE MAINICHI NEWSPAPERS. All rights reserved.

The issue of Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna is to be discussed at a meeting on the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) -- also known as the Washington Convention, which prohibits the international trade of endangered wild species and has been signed by 175 countries -- that is set to begin in Qatar on Saturday.

Designating bluefin tuna as an endangered species seems like an extreme measure, but this month, the EU followed in the steps of the U.S. in announcing its support for a proposal to ban the international trade of the species. Japan has begun to appeal to signatory states in order to obtain one-third of the convention votes necessary to quash the proposal, but the prospects that such activity will yield the desired results remain grim.

The amount of bluefin in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea has dropped from a peak of 300,000 metric tons to less than 80,000 tons, and Japan does not contest that tuna numbers have dwindled as a result of overfishing. Rather, it maintains that fishing in compliance with quotas will allow the species to recover. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), comprised of 49 nations and regions including Japan, the U.S., and parts of Europe, has for this purpose established fishing quotas that have been cut back every year; last year the total catch permitted was 22,000 tons, and this year, the figure is 13,500.

However, fishing quotas basically exist in name only. While this state of affairs can be attributed to fish poaching and other illicit activity due to lax oversight and penalties, tuna fishing for fish farming geared towards the Japanese market -- in which young tuna are caught by coastal nations and released into pens, where they are fed vast amounts of mackerel and squid, then exported to Japan -- is often cited as the basis for the objections against bluefin fishing. The practice was begun in the 1990s under the leadership of Japanese trade corporations and others, and has since spread throughout the Mediterranean. Some 80 percent of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean bluefin tuna caught through this method are exported to Japan, allowing for the widespread distribution of fatty tuna, once considered a luxury food item, at low prices.

The push to designate bluefin tuna as an endangered species and to adopt a trade embargo on it has arisen out of impatience towards the merely nominal tuna quotas, and from the view that banning international trade in the fish is the quickest way to a recovery of resources. Last fall, Monaco, which is active in promoting environmental conservation, proposed the ban, and recently major fishing nations Spain and France decided to support it, reversing their earlier positions.

If the ban is passed at the meeting, Japan plans to file a 'reservation,' a right that is given to CITES members. Countries that have lodged a reservation are permitted to fish in international waters and to import from other countries that are also taking a reservation. The approximately 40 deep-sea tuna fishing vessels stationed at ports in Miyagi Prefecture and elsewhere have an annual catch of about 2,000 tons in the Atlantic Ocean. Continued operations are a matter of life or death for those in the industry, and the use of the 'reservation' strategy, albeit a loophole, could be unavoidable.

However, we must be prepared to face the backlash of international public opinion. At the Academy Awards ceremony that took place this week in Los Angeles, 'The Cove,' a film exposing the practice of dolphin hunting on the Japanese coast from an animal rights perspective, won the award for best documentary feature. A meeting of Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) signatories is set to take place in Nagoya this October, where some 7,000 participants from about 190 countries and regions will gather to protect the diversity of plants and animals.

Japan and the Japanese have always loved nature and have made dedicated efforts to establishing harmony with our natural environment. As such, we must make sure that we are not labeled a nation with no concern for the protection of wild species.

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LOS ANGELES (AP) - Federal prosecutors filed charges Wednesday against a sushi chef and a Santa Monica restaurant on allegations that they served illegal and endangered whale meat.

Typhoon Restaurant Inc., which owns The Hump restaurant, and sushi chef Kiyoshiro Yamamoto, 45, were charged with illegally selling an endangered species product, a misdemeanor.

According to a search warrant, marine mammal activists were served whale during three separate visits to the restaurant. Federal labs confirmed the meat came from a Sei whale, an endangered species protected by international treaties, documents said.

Agents also seized some suspected whale meat during a search of the restaurant Friday but are awaiting test results to confirm it was Sei whale, U.S. attorney spokesman Thom Mrozak said.

In October, two activists posing as customers went to The Hump and ordered 'omakase,' which means they let the chef choose the choicest fresh fish. They also requested whale and pocketed a sample.

The young women worked with Louie Psihoyos, director of the Oscar-winning documentary 'The Cove,' to record the meal with a hidden camera and microphone.

'These are endangered animals being cut up for dinner,' Psihoyos said. 'It's an abuse of science.'

Psihoyos took their findings to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which started an investigation.

Activists claim the whale meat came from Japan's scientific whaling program and was illegally exported, but the U.S. attorney's office is still investigating the source of the meat.

Japan kills hundreds of whales in Antarctic waters each year under its research whaling program, which has triggered violent protests by conservationists and caused strong objections by diplomats in recent years.

An attorney for Typhoon, Gary Lincenberg, said the restaurant accepts responsibility for serving whale and will agree to pay a fine. If convicted, the company could be fined up to $200,000.

Court records say agents interviewed Yamamoto, a Culver City resident and a chef at The Hump for the past seven years, and he admitted serving whale to two young women.

Yamamoto's attorney, Mark Byrne, declined to comment on the charges, saying he hadn't had time to review them. If convicted, Yamamoto could face a year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.

During the October restaurant visit, animal rights activist Crystal Galbraith, 27, and a friend who spoke fluent Japanese racked up a bill of $600, feasting on increasingly exotic dishes to gain the confidence of the waiters and chef.

'It was heartbreaking to eat an endangered animal, but I knew that I was doing it to save' the whales, said Galbraith, a vegan. 'We were there eating for four hours. I felt so full and sick.'

The waitress brought out a dish of whale sushi, identifying the whale in English and Japanese, court documents said. The dish was listed as whale on the check and cost $85.

The team sent samples to Scott Baker, a professor and cetacean specialist at Oregon State University's Marine Mammal Institute, for genetic testing. The results showed the meat was from a Sei whale, court records said.

The Sei whale is a baleen whale found throughout the world's oceans, and known for its graceful and quick swimming and its long, low vocalizations, Baker said. Fully grown, the mammal is longer than a bus.

Eating Sei whale meat is common in Japan, Korea and Norway and among native peoples in Alaska and Canada, but it is illegal to export the meat because of the Sei whale's endangered status.

In late February, when Psihoyos and the rest of his team were in Los Angeles for the Academy Awards, Galbraith and another friend returned to The Hump twice more.

This time, agents from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sat at the bar and watched Yamamoto at work, court records said. During the third visit, another agent watched the chef go to his car and retrieve a package wrapped in clear plastic.

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[Associated Press] - March 11, 2010 - BOSTON, The federal government on Wednesday recommended an endangered-species listing for the loggerhead turtles in U.S. waters, a decision that could lead to tighter restrictions on fishing and other maritime trades.

The massive, nomadic sea turtles have been listed since 1978 as threatened, a step below endangered, but federal scientists proposed ratcheting up the designation after reviewing the state of the species.

Researchers said primary threats to the loggerheads include injury and death from fishing gear and damage to their nesting areas.

The joint proposal by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries division and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is not a final decision. If approved, it puts loggerheads on track for an endangered listing by the summer of 2011. The proposal now enters a public comment period.

Environmental groups who'd been pushing an endangered listing said the proposal was a 'turning point' they hope will lead to greater turtle protections.

'I think it's huge day for loggerhead sea turtles,' said Elizabeth Griffin, a marine wildlife scientist at Oceana. 'I think it really draws attention to the fact these turtles are not doing well and more needs to be done to protect them.'

No one really knows how many loggerheads there are, or how many are being killed by fishing gear or other activities. A species doesn't need falling numbers to be endangered, it can get the listing if it's shown to be threatened by one of five factors, such as disease or 'manmade factors affecting its continued existence.'

Griffin cites a 40 percent drop in the number of nesting females in Florida over the last decade as evidence of trouble. But the Fisheries Survival Fund, an East Coast scallopers group, said in a letter early this month that nesting beach surveys can't provide good evidence of decline because they measure only mature females, who take at least 30 years to reach breeding age.

Shaun Gehan, an attorney for the Fisheries Survival Fund, said an endangered listing is unneeded for a species there's no evidence is in danger of extinction. If new protections are mandated for the turtle, it could affect not only fishermen, but maritime traffic, coastal development and waterfront use, Gehan said.

'We are extremely disappointed that they've taken this approach,' he said.

Loggerheads are named for their large heads, which contain potent jaws that can crush the hard shells of prey such as conch. The turtles are about the size of a fist when they hatch and make a frenzied dash to the surf. But they typically grow to more than three feet (one meter) in length and 250 pounds (110 kilograms). The animal can log thousands of miles as it travels across oceans.

Barbara Schroeder, national sea turtle coordinator for NOAA's fisheries division, said the biggest threats to the North Pacific loggerhead include damage to primary nesting sites, which are mainly in Japan, as well as accidental snaring of the turtles in fishing gear.

Andrea Treece of San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity said the turtles get hooked by Hawaiian longline fishermen targeting swordfish and tuna and can be injured or drowned.

On the East Coast, the main threat to turtles is gear from the region's various fisheries, Schroeder said.

Gehan said that scallopers have developed dredges to keep the turtles out with a chain mat that covers the opening. Critics say the dredges keep turtles out, but also crush them, though survival fund officials say there's no evidence of that.

A primary benefit of the endangered status would be increased public pressure on protecting the species, Griffin said. But the government would also have to determine 'critical habitats,' such as where the turtles reproduce or forage. Such places could be subject to additional protections for the turtles, including restrictions on maritime development or fishing.

A balance needs to be found to help a species Griffin called 'the ambassadors of our oceans' because they travel great distances and can be seen up close when they venture on land.

'I think that really gives people an appreciation for our turtles and marine life,' she said.

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