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  The Age 24 Oct 07
Japanese tuna scandal starts to bite
Andrew Darby, Hobart

THE multibillion-dollar Japanese southern bluefin tuna scandal is worsening under closer Australian Government scrutiny.

An official investigation has already found that over 20 years Japanese fishers hid an $8 billion overcatch of the highly prized sashimi fish that migrates around southern Australia.

But an international meeting has been told the scale of the overcatch is climbing, Japan's figures still do not add up, and Tokyo is stonewalling attempts to regulate fishing of the critically endangered species.

An international investigation into what Australian officials called an outrageous fraud found that Japanese fishers probably used a series of disguises for the overcatch. The fishers described southern bluefin tuna as a different species and evaded any inspection on shore, underreported the amount of the fish they caught, and imported it as different tuna either transhipped at sea from foreign vessels or in containers.

In a review that the Japanese Government has vetoed from public release, the investigators found the fraud extended to consumer markets.

"The investigation shows there were illegal or inappropriate labelling and trading that led buyers to believe imported tuna (was) domestic tuna, and farmed tuna (was) wild tuna at least at the retail and wholesale level in Japan," said the report, obtained by The Age.

The Independent Review of Japanese Southern Bluefin Market Data Anomalies estimated the overcatch at 178,198 tonnes a total that Australian delegation leader Glenn Hurry last year said was worth up to $8 billion.

But diplomats meeting in Canberra last week heard that a follow-up study on the Japanese market now estimated the total overcatch at 10 per cent more.

The Australian delegation told the the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna it was concerned at large discrepancies between the amount of the fish available on the Japanese market and the officially claimed catch, according to the meeting's report released yesterday.

Japan said it had introduced a strict management system for southern bluefin tuna, including tagging caught fish, restricting ports where it could be landed and increasing penalties for breaches. It also accepted a halving of its catch quota for three years.

However, attempts to introduce a catch documentation scheme a binding international paper trail to track all catches made very little progress at the conservation commission. No agreement could be reached on a satellite tracking system for southern bluefin boats or on having independent observers on board.

Wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC said with southern bluefin stock down to less than 10 per cent of the virgin stock, inaction was driving the species nearer to extinction.

"Japan is using a series of blocking tactics," TRAFFIC's global marine program leader, Glenn Sant, said.

"Until we have a full catch documentation scheme, reliability in reporting how much (southern bluefin tuna) is being caught is still up to the country doing the overcatch. To me it's quite worrying that this meeting has actually gone backwards."

But despite continuing concerns about the extent of the catch in the past, a spokesman for federal Fisheries Minister Eric Abetz said Japan appeared to be fishing legally now. "The Australian Government is confident the overcatch is not continuing, based on market information," spokesman Brad Stansfield said.

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