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Friday, August 27, 1999 Published at 17:22 GMT 18:22 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Japan told to cut tuna catch

The bluefin tuna is prized in Japan for the quality sushi it produces

The Japanese might have to cut down on their sushi following a ruling about tuna fishing by an international tribunal in Germany.

The BBC's Tim Hirsch in Hamburg: "The tribunal didn't object to research, but there are limits"
Japan was accused of using experimental fishing to increase its quota of bluefin tuna, an endangered species.

The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, meeting in Hamburg, has ordered it to stop. It says any fish caught under the experimental programme must be counted as part of its quota.

The action had been brought by Australia and New Zealand, who claimed Japan was catching the extra fish for commercial rather than scientific reasons.

They are worried that the tuna population faces serious or irreversible damage.

[ image: Japan takes 90% of the bluefin tuna catch]
Japan takes 90% of the bluefin tuna catch
The three nations are signatories to a 1993 treaty limiting catches of the bluefin.

Since large-scale fishing began in the 1950s, stocks of the southern bluefin tuna have declined by 95%.

About 90% of the bluefins caught go to the Japanese market where the fish is highly prized for the quality of the sushi it produces.

In 1995, Japan proposed an increase in its quota, but no agreement was reached.

Last year, it began what it termed an experimental fishing programme, catching 1,400 tonnes, or 25% above its limit. The programme was resumed in June.

[ image: Japan's haul had increased 25% under the guise of research]
Japan's haul had increased 25% under the guise of research
The tribunal also ruled that Japan could continue experimental fishing only if the other two countries agreed.

The BBC correspondent at the tribunal says the ruling amounts to a temporary ban while the long-term arguments are thrashed out.

But conservationists have welcomed the decision and say they hope it is the first of a number of rulings aimed at curbing over-fishing of other species.

"The tribunal's decision to stop this outrageous move by Japan is the right one for the tuna," said Greenpeace fisheries campaigner Desley Mather.

"Japan was using the pretence of science simply to increase its quota of the commercially-valuable fish - an irresponsible and dangerous precedent in world fisheries."

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