Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ignorance is fish

So what do you do when the world's largest importer of seafood does not understand the concept of sustainable fishing? Actually, its worse than that. What happens if they are completely unaware of the concept of sustainable fishing? Well, the answer is that our fish stocks look a lot like they do now. Though it may seem obvious, a survey conducted of Japanese shoppers has shown that they haven't heard of sustainable fisheries and show little concern for fishing's environmental impact.

The Japanese are fairly notorious for their ravenous consumption of fish which fuels fisheries in all the world's seas. The spoils are shipped to Tsukiji Fish Market in enormous quantities and fetch unimaginable prices. Whether buying the fattest tuna for status or for food, the Japanese continue to oppose international trade regulations and fishing quotas. Even this week at the CITES convention, Japan stands in strong opposition of a bluefin tuna ban supported by the US and EU. Furthermore, their lobbyists have been threatening developing nations into siding against the ban.

So if the government is willing to stand in the face of all fishery science and international support, what does this mean for the Japanese consumer? Misinformation and unsustainable consumption. There is a dangerous mix of ignorance and hubris involved here. As quoted from the first linked article:

"[Japanese shoppers] were sceptical about how humans could ‘manage’ fish stocks and one woman shopper told researchers: 'There can’t be a shortage of fish – just look at how much there is in the supermarkets.'"

"Associate Professor Yuko Onozak of Stavanger University told the Seafood Summit in Paris: ' The Japanese are not aware of any problems with the sea. They don't see it. They don't hear it. They don’t think it is their problem.'"

These sentiments can also be found in the survey results which looked at the seafood concerns of 3,700 Japanese primary household shoppers. As seen below, less that 7% consider the environmental impact of how their fish was harvested very important. With more than 35% considering it unimportant. There results are similar for traceability, or where the fish came from. This is important for determining whether a fish has come from well-managed stock or not. This is bad news for fish stocks since of those surveyed, more than three quarters purchased fish at least once a week, and over half, multiple times a week.

The survey also showed that there was a lack of information available to Japanese consumers and a lack of understanding of what it even meant to manage fish stocks. Some never thought about it and others were unfamiliar with any of the eco-labels that are used to identify fish caught from sustainable fisheries. The phrase 'eco-' in Japan is only used for pollution and recycling, so for many, eco-friendly fish simply did not make sense. But probably the most frightening finding was that, out of the 3700 surveyed, NONE thought that overfishing was occurring.

Those surveyed did respond well to information that was provided to them with respondents willing to pay more for fish if it carried an eco label. But internationally, there really is no lack of information. The results showed that shoppers were more likely to trust the government regarding seafood information, and least likely to trust an NPO. What this just goes to show is that there really is no hope to change Japanese consumer perceptions untill the government actually acknowledges there is a problem. With the Japanese government strong-arming its way through another international conference, tuna and all other vulnerable fish stocks remain at risk from this arrogant over-exploitation.

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