New satellite analysis by global analytics firm, Windward reveal that Japan has been using the island of Mauritius as a base for its rapidly expanding industrial fishing presence across the Indian Ocean and Africa. The extent of its industrial fishing operations in Africa’s waters, using Mauritius as a base, are revealed for the first time.
This comes after a large Japanese bulk carrier crashed into Mauritius, unleashing a massive oil spill, and four months on there has still not been been any credible explanation for how the Wakashio disaster occurred.
The rise in Japan’s operations across the Indian Ocean is particularly sensitive as Japan has been investing in maritime security systems as part of foreign aid agreements with Governments in the region (such as the $7 million maritime security deal with Seychelles in 2019). It is suspected that a failure in these Japanese-provided maritime security systems was one of the contributing factors that led to the Wakashio disaster, which saw a massive Japanese bulk carrier on collision course with Mauritius for four days, without any interception by the Indian Navy-run Mauritian Coastguard.
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Seeing the rapid rise of Japan’s industrial fishing operations in the Indian Ocean raises significant conflicts of interest questions about the provision of ‘maritime security’ radars and equipment that were not effective in stopping the grounding of the Japanese mega-ship (even though private sector satellite tracking was able to provide near-instant situational awareness), and this equipment provided by the Japanese Government will be responsible for surveillance of Japan’s own industrial fishing fleets at a time when other countries have been slowing fishing activity to allow stocks to recover. With strong suspicions of a Japanese cover up over the Wakashio, how trustworthy will Japanese equipment monitoring Japanese fishing fleets be?
It is particularly sensitive with the large investments made in Mauritius by Mitsubishi Corporation, the largest grouping of company holdings in Japan, and one of the big four conglomerates (called Keiretsu) that dominate Japanese Government and business circles.
Mitsubishi-related companies own almost half of all tuna around the world through investments in fleets, fishing equipment, processing plants and branded tuna products (such as U.K.-based Princes Tuna, which has a large presence in Mauritius).
The rapid escalation in Japan’s fisheries operations in the Indian Ocean comes as major U.K. brands like Tesco and Princes announced a significant reduction of tuna sourcing from the Indian Ocean in October, to allow overfished tuna stocks to recover.
It is feared that Japan is stepping into the Indian Ocean and Africa to take advantage of Western nations lower fishery operations. This would allow Japan to meet its growing need for tuna (much of which is then re-exported to the United States with Japanese branding as a 2017 UN Tuna Traceability Declaration with Conservation International and WEF revealed).
Although Japan finally made an announcement in December about ending illegal fishing operations (the illegal fishing economy in Japan earns $3 billion a year alone), there are many who are skeptical about how serious Japan is about this pledge and also whether it is a diversion from legal overfishing, which is the real issue with the global fishing industry. As a major funder, Japan wields significant influence over the UN system, which it has regularly uses to advance the interests of its corporations, such as with shipping emissions (at the IMO) and fisheries quotas (via fishery regulators administered by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization).
Tuna stocks from the Indian Ocean are on the brink of collapse due to the rapid expansion of industrial fishing operations. New reports have also found that the type fishing gear used in the Indian Ocean is one of the biggest drivers for the 90% collapse in dolphin populations across the Indian Ocean since the 1980s. The research found over 4 million dolphins had been killed by fishing techniques since the 1950s, which researchers believe is still a significant underestimate. Almost 100,000 dolphins continue to be killed every year by tuna fishing fleets that capture dolphins because of industrial fishing techniques that essential act as giant lawnmowers across the ocean.
Both Japan and the EU (particularly, Spain), have been singled out for not accurately reporting their industrial fishing activities across the Indian Ocean. The then EU Commissioner for Fisheries, Karmenu Vella, has been a visible spokesperson for a sustainable ocean, but has not responded to questions put to him by South African authorities for three years to account for discrepancies in the reporting of Spanish industrial fishing activities in the Indian Ocean.
These letters were published in a series of reports by the Blue Marine Foundation highlighting the rapidly declining state of Indian Ocean tuna populations.
At the center of the sustainability battle is understanding tuna economics, and who the winners and losers are.
This is around $8 billion. Of this, around $1.5 billion is caught in Mauritian waters.
However, Mauritius only receives at most 15% of the net end value. This means that for Mauritian tuna that is sold for $3 to $4 a kg in Japan, EU, U.S. or China, the Mauritian Government receives around 20 cents per kg.
This has been a consistent issue with the way that tuna fisheries contracts have been structured, and major reforms are needed.
So Japanese fishing companies have been paying the Mauritian Government between $20 million and $30 million a year for tuna that the Japanese fishery, processing and retail parts of the value chain are earning over $1.4 billion on.
This is a strong incentive for Japanese fishing companies and processing plants to operate from countries like Mauritius.
It means the fishing vessels could be capturing $500 million of value a year from the tuna – and a similar amount – $500 million a year – is captured in value by tuna processing companies where the tuna is shipped to.
A complex set of companies and lack of traceability prevents the Government of Mauritius from earning the full value of their tuna and much of this value is hidden until realized in Japan.
Several sources of satellites reveal the extend to which Japan has used Mauritius to advance its interests across the entire Indian Ocean and around Africa’s coasts.
Within a few months of the deal being signed, there was a 1000% jump in the number of Japanese fishing operations launched from Mauritius. Japanese flagged vessels now account for the vast majority of large-scale industrial fishing operations launched from Mauritius.
Analysis by Windward reveal the rapid increase in overall industrial fishing operations by international fleets based in Mauritius under the new Pravind Jugnauth administration starting in 2017. Windward also reveals how Japan came to dominate Mauritius’ industrial fishing operations from 2019 (highlighted in red above as a comparison with overall fishing operations).
The satellite analysis by Windward also reveals the areas where industrial fishing operations within Mauritius’ waters are most heavily concentrated.
It appears that the Japanese fleets have focused 80% of their industrial tuna fisheries efforts around the semi-autonomous island of Rodrigues over the past two years (440 of 551 fishing operations).
This is notable because this marks a significantly different pattern of tuna fishing than what had occurred in Mauritius over the previous four years from 2011-2015.
Looking at data submitted by the Mauritian Government to international tuna regulators (IOTC), most industrial fishing activities in Mauritius until 2016 was focused mainly around the rich biodiversity banks of the Nazareth Bank, one of the largest shallow water seagrass and coral reef habitats in the world, and a remnant of a recently discovered ancient continent.
This area is particularly important as it has been identified as an internationally protected breeding ground for pygmy blue whales, as part of a large deepwater feature that extends from Mauritius to the famous Saya de Malha Bank, which is jointly managed with Seychelles.
Beyond Mauritius, Windward reveals Japan uses Mauritius for its expansive operations across the coast of Africa and the Indian Ocean. What is notable is how far these operations extend: from as far West as the Atlantic Ocean, to as far East to the coast of Australia, and as far South as the fringes of Antarctica. It is staggering how far these seven vessels have travelled in a such a short period of time.
The entire fleet operates from Mauritius capital city Port Louis, which indicates that their operations should be known and regulated by Mauritian authorities, with the knowledge of Japanese authorities as the vessels are flagged to Japan.
A look through the seven vessels using Mauritius for fishing operations reveals that each vessel is over 50 meters long (one sixth the size of the giant Wakashio bulk carrier, that carried over 200,000 tons of iron ore), and equipped with sophisticated gear.
This means that these vessels can be in the ocean for months on end, withstanding extreme weather conditions, whilst catching industrial amounts of tuna. These industrial fishing vessels are far larger than the 3-5 meter long wooden boats that the subsidence coastal lagoon fishermen are used to.
The Japanese fleet in Mauritius appears to be small – around seven unique vessels at a time. However, they appear to be able to catch large volumes of fish. They operate in clusters and in defined areas, as can be seen from the satellite analysis by Windward that shows their operational clusters.
The fishing patterns of six of Japan’s seven vessels can be clearly tracked. The seventh vessel – a giant factory trawler called Tomi Maru No 58 – appears to be fishing in the dark, which would be illegal for a 68 meter long vessel (AIS is compulsory for vessels longer than 25 meters or larger than 300 tons to avoid collisions at sea). This is particularly concerning as this giant industrial fishing vessel had previously been impounded in Russia for being caught conducting illegal fishing activities in a case that went to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea in 2007.
Satellite analysis reveals five high-tech industrial tuna vessels that operated from Mauritius over this period over the past two years. These were the Tayo Maru No 88, Shoei Maru No 7, Toyo Maru No 28, Shofuku Maru No 18, Shofuki Maru No 38. Looking at data available on Global Fishing Watch, the use of Mauritius as a base can clearly be seen.
There was an additional fishing research vessel, the No 2 Yushin Maru that conducted unspecified ‘research’ operations along the Indian Ocean down to Antarctica (as seen in satellite analysis by Windward).
This research does not appear to have been disclosed publicly, nor are the areas in which this research took place.
When looking at the pattern of fishing, it is important to bear in mind that in 2019 Japan opted out of the international whaling agreement, and has publicly declared its intention to begin commercial whaling.
The waters around Mauritius contain some of the Southern Ocean’s most important whale nursing grounds.
Mauritians have already been distressed by the sight of over 50 dead whales and dolphins washed up on the island’s shores following the Wakashio oil spill. To this date, there has been no explanation for the deaths, and the necropsies of the dead dolphins and whales have still not been publicly released.
Although Japan’s Ambassador to Mauritius has publicly stated that no whaling is taking place in Mauritius’ waters, it is troubling that the operations of all the fishing vessels cannot be independently assessed. There should not be anything commercially sensitive about fishing operations unless there is something that someone does not want to see disclosed.
One particular vessel, a factory ship known as Tomi Maru No 58 has attracted particular attention due to its size and particularly secretive fishing patterns.
All six of the other Japanese fishing vessels based in Mauritius could be tracked, aside from the Tomi Maru No 58, the largest vessel in the fleet, which kept its transponder silent.
Forbes approached the Japanese Embassy in Mauritius for an explanation about the operations of the Tomi Maru No 58 on October 19, but the Embassy have not responded.
In several interviews, the Japanese Ambassador to Mauritius has promised transparency and openness in Japan’s fishing operations in and around Mauritius. The Tomi Maru was also impounded by Russia in 2007 where illegal fishing was identified. This case was taken to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.
Going deeper into the operations of some of the vessels raise further questions about the locations of their fishing operations.
Using satellite tracking via Global Fishing Watch, the Japanese industrial fishing vessel, the Shofuku Maru No 38 (highlighted in purple), can be seen conducting extensive fishing operations across the biologically sensitive Nazareth Bank since June 2019. It started first in Agalega, and then came down the Nazareth Bank through to Rodrigues.
By 2020, it had started to fish extensively around Rodrigues within Mauritius’ territorial waters.
From the EU’s ship safety database, EQUASIS, there is no record of any external inspection of the vessel, and it is registered to Usufuku Honten KK, a company based in Northern Japan.
Satellite analysis by Windward and Global Fishing Watch reveal the Taiyo Maru No 88 (with an operating presence in Mauritius) starting to conduct fishing operations within Mozambique’s territorial waters in 2016 and 2017.
By 2018, the Taiyo Maru No 88 was operating extensively within Madagascar’s national waters and along its Western Coast. It then goes on to conduct fishing operations much deeper South, close to to Antarctica.
By mid-2020, it had used Mauritius as a base and started expensive fishing operations on the way to Australia. It had previously operated under a different name of Fukuju Maru No 75 that visited ports in the Canary Islands.
According to EU ship safety database, EQUASIS, the Taiyo Maru No 88 has never been inspected and the vessel owner is Kushikino Mahuro Co Ltd, linked to a $2 billion fishing company based in Southern Japan.
Japan’s powerful tuna interests have had their eye on Mauritius and the Indian Ocean for a while. In 1989, Japanese giant Mitsubishi purchased Liverpool-based Princes Group.
Mitsubishi is the largest of the four main business groups or Keiretsu that dominate Japanese business and Government (the Wakashio was operated by companies intimately associated with the Mitsui Keiretsu, the second largest conglomerate in Japan). With Mitsubishi, there are three main groupings: Mitsubishi Motors, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi Corporation. Mitsubishi Corporation is the division under which Princes is held, and includes other holdings in .
It is estimated that Mitsubishi has 40% of the world’s tuna market in various investments (e.g., fishing fleets, tuna processing plants, various subsidiaries).
In that time, Mitsubishi rapidly expanded their understanding of tuna fisheries in the Indian Ocean. They established a presence in Mauritius and over the 1990s rapidly became one of the biggest local companies, establishing a large presence in the capital city, Port Louis. In 2014, they merged with Mauritius’ second biggest tuna processing company to form a tuna giant employing 10,000 workers and generating $400 million sales every year, mainly from tuna processing.
Prior to the Wakashio grounding Japan was already facing a backlash in Mauritius from what appeared to be a series of secretive deals for tuna access rights and maritime security assistance, with questions also being raised about the $12m that Japan had granted Mauritius for the purchasing of radars (given that most of Mauritius’ radars had appeared to be down on the day of the Wakashio crash).
Controversy surrounds Japan-provided Mauritius radars
In August 2018 Mauritius announced a $12 million partnership focused on several strategic areas. Several large delegations arrived from Japan over this period, including working sessions with the Mauritian Prime Minister. The works for the radar was completed in 2019.
A controversial 2018 fisheries and maritime security deal between Japan and Mauritius, and signed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Masahisa Sato, with the then Minister for Foreign Affairs of Mauritius, Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo, proved very unpopular with protests by Mauritian fishermen who had complained about the unsustainable tuna fishing methods of the Japanese fleets in Mauritian waters, and questioned Japan on its sustainability practices and policies on whaling.
Under the Jugnauth Government there has been a massive industrialization of Mauritius-sponsored activities on the ocean. These have not gone without controversy, such as the Trident Deal for India to run Mauritius’ Coastguard and Japan to provide Maritime Security services. Both of these appeared to fail badly with the Wakashio grounding and oil spill.
Support from India and Japan have both accompanied the significant expansion of fishing operations in Mauritius over the past two years. This has been sharply criticized by many NGOs and neighboring countries who have argued that the Indian Ocean is being fished beyond its sustainability limits.
Japan has also faced similar protests by artisanal tuna fishermen, angry at Japan’s large industrial fleets that have overfished regions around Japan, including conducting fishing operations when tuna are spawning, thereby stunting the growth of healthy tuna populations.
With the planet facing a climate and biodiversity crisis, there needs to be a fundamental re-evaluation of how fisheries contracts are structured.
At present, tuna contracts are structured to maximize the amount of volume of fish that is caught.
By allowing the host nation to capture a higher value of the tuna, this should flip the incentives of tuna fisheries to lower the volume of fish caught and increase the value and resources that nations like Mauritius can use to better protect their waters.
A higher value should then be tied to lower volumes being caught, establishing a win-win where a country would still get to ensure the same amount of income, and nature can be restored to health levels.
These are the sorts of solutions that need to be explored by large industrial nations like Japan, rather than militarizing the world’s ocean with stronger maritime security infrastructure, much of which was of dubious quality as seen by the Wakashio.
This is the sort of leadership that would truly help to turn small island states into large ocean nations.