Japan agrees to halve its tuna fishing quota

TOKYO — Japan on Monday promised to halve its quota for southern bluefin tuna as punishment for overfishing, but denied allegations it has poached thousands of tons of the endangered species every year.

Under an accord with an international conservation agency, Japan will reduce its annual catch to 3,000 tons for five years starting in 2007, down from the 6,065 tons it was allowed in 2006, Japan's Fisheries Agency said in a statement.

The global catch was also set to drop over 20 percent after a four-day meeting of the international Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna, or CCSBT, which ended Friday.

The reduction came amid charges that Japan, which imports most of the bluefin tuna caught around the world for sashimi and sushi dishes, has repeatedly surpassed its quota.

Australian Fisheries Management Authority managing director Richard McLoughlin reportedly said in August that despite the 6,065-ton national quota, Japanese fishermen have fished between 12,000 and 20,000 tons per year for the last 20 years.

But Japanese officials stressed Monday that the agreement to reduce its quota demonstrated Japan's commitment to conserving bluefin tuna stocks.

"To revive the tuna stock, Japan has taken the lead in reducing its quota," Fisheries Agency official Jun Yamashita told reporters Monday.

Japan also acknowledged some overfishing had occurred in the past, but not at amounts alleged by McLoughlin, and said measures were in place to make sure its fishermen stick to the quota.

"It's extremely difficult to accurately keep track of how much tuna Japan takes, and Australia's figures are unreliable," said another agency official, Takaaki Sakamoto.

"What's important is that there will be no more overfishing by Japan."

Japan tightened controls on bluefin tuna fishing after an investigation found the country exceeded its annual quota last year by 1,800 tons, according to Sakamoto.

Ships can only unload tuna at designated ports under supervision by Fisheries Agency staff, who tag the tuna to keep track of individual quotas.

At the CCSBT meeting at the southern Japanese city of Miyazaki, representatives from Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and the European Union agreed to cut the global catch of bluefin tuna by over 20 percent to 11,530 tons for 2007 from 14,925 tons for 2006, according to Japanese officials.

Southern bluefin tuna are fast-swimming open sea fish found throughout the southern hemisphere, and can weigh over 440 pounds.

Overfishing has depleted stocks and less than 5 percent of the original global population remains, the conservation group, Humane Society International, has said.