Moving to TAC system, Japanese fisheries managers get lessons from US experts

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Republished from Seafood Source, 25 March 2019

by Chris Loew

Japanese fisheries officials heard from their international counterparts about methods for incorporating more data into their fisheries science and management at a recent workshop in Tokyo.

The workshop,“New Resource Management Based on Data Innovation: Current State of the United States and Future Vision of Japan,” took place at the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries building on 7 March. The event was co-sponsored by the Fisheries Agency, the Fisheries Research and Education Organization, and the U.S.-based non-governmental organization Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

Japan’s Fisheries Reform Act, the first major reform of Japan’s fishing laws in 70 years, was approved in the Diet at the end of last year. The law will move Japan from a total allowable effort (TAE) system – in which the number, size, and period of operation of fishing boats, and the types of gear allowed, are regulated – to a total allowable catch (TAC) system with vessel quotas for most species. 

In comparison with other countries, Japan has so far set a TAC for only a few species. Those include saury, Alaska pollock, sardines, mackerel, Southern mackerel, horse mackerel, squid, and snow crab – and recently for juvenile bluefin tuna. But with the reform, Japan will have to set TAC for many more species and fisheries, some of them data-poor, and also monitor and enforce the TACs. To accommodate the move, the government is planning an expansion of the country’s stock assessment system and an expansion of the use of data from fishing operations. 

Masanori Miyahara, president of the Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency (FRA), said under Japan’s current slow paper-based system, scientific assessments and quotas are made based on two or three-year old data. That leads to complaints from fishermen that stock assessments do not reflect what they are actually seeing when they fish. When a stock is recovering, this results in a TAC that is too low, and so it is bad for the fishermen. He also said that computerization of survey and landing data is becoming a global standard and may be required in future for sustainability certification schemes. Japan may find itself at a disadvantage in global markets if it cannot meet these standards, Miyahara said.

Guest speakers at the workshop included Dorothy Lowman and Shems Jud. Lowman is a U.S. commissioner of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), though she did not speak in that capacity at the meeting. In the past, she organized a national workshop on data modernization/electronic monitoring, and played a leadership role in the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s decision-making on groundfish. Her main activity now as part of the leadership team of the Net Gains Alliance, which is an initiative to support U.S. data modernization. Shems Jud is deputy director for the Pacific region for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), who was involved in changes to the management and data collection systems in the U.S. West Coast groundfish fishery.

Lowman explained the steps involved in setting up an electronic monitoring (EM) program, including a sample timeline, with special emphasis on involving all of the parties involved. For example, teaching some fishermen how to use the system, and then getting them to train others was effective. Lowman emphasized the benefit of not putting too much detail in the regulations, but rather referring to a vessel monitoring plan (VMP) for the details, in order to keep some flexibility. 

“It takes two years to change a regulation,” while a VMP can be changed more easily, she said.

Jud reviewed the experience of the U.S. West Coast groundfish fishery, which adopted an individual transferable quota (ITQ) system in 2011. This required shipboard monitors to enforce the quota and ensure operators were not discarding bycatch. But using shipboard monitors on all vessels was expensive and problematic, Jud said. For example, if observers were unavailable, the vessel could not fish. And if an observer was scheduled and paid for, operators felt pressure go out even if conditions became dangerous. For smaller vessels, the additional person meant the loss of space for a crewmember. As a result of these problems, the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to allow camera-based electronic monitoring (EM) systems in some fisheries from 2017. Under the “optimized retention” approach adopted by the council, fishermen’s logbook entries are the primary data source, and they are checked against the videos by authorized third-parties. Jud noted that due to success in rebuilding stocks, environmental groups that were previously critical of the industry are now even involved in joint marketing. 

“That fishery is hard to attack now,” he said.

There has been movement toward utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) for reviewing of the footage and the Japanese would like to learn about and employ such systems. The Japanese side is also hoping to digitize stock assessment data, such as having fishermen enter the catch on a tablet computer on the trip to shore instead of a paper based system that is slowly compiled and assessed. The goal is to use electronic reporting (ER) to get stock assessments that reflect real-time conditions.

The panelists in the workshop faced audience questions over concerns regarding the confidentiality of data, since fishermen like to keep their favorite spots a secret. Additionally, there were many questions for Lowman from the Japanese side about who owns and has access to the data, especially from vessel monitoring systems (VMS) that show vessel movements.

As the average age of Japanese fishermen is over 60, many questioned whether they could master the input of catch data by tablet computers, due to the fact that many older Japanese have low computer literacy. Everyone had a laugh when a video that was to be played at the workshop could not be made to run due to technical issues. Complicated modern technology was blamed.