Farming tuna in Japan

How Japanese innovation could keep tuna on the menu

As more people eat fish globally and concerns about the depletion of natural resources grow, a Japanese company starts cultivating bluefin tuna.
Farmed tuna in southern Japan

It is spawning season for one of the first generations of farmed bluefin tuna in southern Japan. After spending about a month at a hatching facility, the baby tuna are now heading to reserves. Some will go to other fish farms in the winter to be fattened for sale in the market, and some will stay on until spring.

As with human babies, the bluefin tuna need to be fed every hour when they are very young. Caretakers arrive at the reserves at dawn and stay until late at night, and, if necessary, they stay throughout the night, keeping an eye on the wee ones.

The human parenting approach is thanks to Toyota Tsusho, a Japanese trading firm, which in 2010 joined hands with Kinki University to achieve a stable supply of bluefin tuna, and set up a company named Tuna Dream Goto.

The university had already figured out the world’s first system for the complete cultivation of bluefin tuna. It became the new company’s mandate to help commercialise it at their fish factory in Nagasaki.

“With the global move towards tighter fishing regulations, what we need now is fish farming that doesn’t depend on natural resources,” Naoyoshi Ishiyama, project general manager of Toyota Tsusho’s agribusiness development cross divisional team, told FinanceAsia in an interview in Tokyo. “We, as an industry globally, are aware that we no longer live in an era in which we could fish as we pleased, and share a sense of crisis that we need to manage the resources properly, particularly when it comes to tuna.”

Japan is the biggest consumer of bluefin tuna in the world. In 2008, about 80% of the 50,000 tonnes of bluefin tuna caught or cultivated globally was sold to Japan, according to the country’s fisheries agency.

But as the consumption of this highly prized fish, often used in sushi, grew around the world, it has been overfished.

In 2010, Monaco proposed to the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora a complete ban on international commercial trade in the bluefin tuna.

Japan, as well as Canada and several member states of the Arab League, opposed it.

The Atlantic bluefin tuna is evidently illegally fished rather frequently, particularly the East Atlantic and Mediterranean stock.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas estimated the catches of Atlantic bluefin tuna in 2007 potentially reached 61,000 tonnes, which contrasted with the legal quota of 29,500 tonnes for that year, and the maximum annual catch recommended by the conservation agency to prevent collapse and initiate rebuilding for that stock, estimated at between 8,500 tonnes and 15,000 tonnes.

In the end, the proposal was rejected in 2010, but industry insiders are now bracing for the likelihood that the subject will resurface at the next meeting in March 2013.

This all comes against a backdrop of rising fish consumption globally. Total fish production almost doubled from 65 million tonnes to 125 million tonnes between 1970 and 1999, when the world average consumption of fish, crustaceans and molluscs reached 16.3 kilograms per person. By 2030, annual fish consumption is likely to rise to between 19 kilogrammes and 20 kilograms per person, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). That means more sources of supply will be necessary.

“By the turn of the century, three-quarters of ocean fish stocks were overfished, depleted or exploited up to their maximum sustainable yield. Further growth in the marine catch can be only modest,” the FAO wrote in the report. “Aquaculture compensated for this marine slowdown, doubling its share of world fish production during the 1990s. It will continue to grow rapidly, at rates of 5% to 7% a year up to 2015.”

TUNA DREAM
On top of necessary factors such as a welcoming local fishing community, the company chose the location in southern Japan because of its clean and relatively warm water. The lack of loud noises and strong light was also important because tuna are known to be sensitive fish.

The farming of bluefin tuna practised in the past involved catching young tuna in the wild and cultivating them on reserves, which presented problems in terms of ensuring stable production and preserving resources.

In the Mediterranean, bluefin tuna are mostly caught by fishing vessels and then transported live to tuna farms where the fish are fattened for six to eight months. But this isn’t the most effective way to increase output.

So, for more than 30 years, Kinki University has been researching “complete aquafarming” of tuna. The word “complete” is crucial — it reflects the full life cycle. This means it starts with hatching eggs, cultivating young fish, raising them to become adult fish that later become parents themselves. In 2002, Kinki University established the first complete aquafarming cycle.

Tuna Dream Goto, a Toyota Tsusho subsidiary, currently cultivates artificially incubated juvenile fish, which are around six centimetres in length, provided by the university.

They are nurtured until they grow to around 30 centimetres and are then supplied to Japanese fish farmers. The farmers cultivate the fish until they reach market size and then sell them to wholesalers and retailers. In December 2010, six months after the establishment of the new company, the first shipment of young tuna was made to fish farmers.

CHINA SYNDROME
Ironically, fish consumption in Japan is declining though the country still eats more than the global average. The per capita consumption of fish in the country dropped to 56 kilograms in 2008, from the peak of 72.5 kilograms in 1988, according to Japan’s fisheries agency.

But other nations, such as China, are eating more fish than they used to. If this trend continues, there will be a problem, said Hiroyuki Metoki, an investor and public relations manager at Maruha Nichiro, the world’s biggest seafood company.

Metoki said that the demand from emerging countries had become particularly apparent since around 2005.

“On top of the BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy] problems [in beef] in the developed countries, emerging nations simply began to seek out fish as a source of protein,” he said.

Some companies, as a result, are looking to grow. For example, Mitsubishi Corp’s acquisition of a salmon farming business in Chile for about $125 million was an effort to establish stable supplies of farmed salmon for the markets in Japan, the US and Europe, as well as for rapidly expanding markets in emerging countries.

“As the demand rises globally, we’re fully aware that we need to be a producer rather than a mere trader when it comes to marine products,” Metoki said.

He said the company tried the complete cultivation of bluefin tuna 10 years ago, but had to quit because it was not profitable. It resumed the effort in 2006 and now expects the first wave of the fish will go to the market by around 2013.

“The problem with fish farming remains that aside from bluefin tuna, which sells for a high price and is therefore highly profitable, it’s not financially viable to farm other tunas, even though it’s technologically possible,” he said.

“That means fish farming as a method hasn’t fully solved the issue of how to secure other more casual fishes for human consumption.”

But it needs to, soon. As the appetite for fish grows around the world and resources are depleted, the industry needs a sustainable business model. Complete aqua farming may be the answer.

 

This article first appeared in a supplement to the July issue of FinanceAsia magazine.

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