• Simon Upton
Foreign Affairs and Trade

The Government yesterday informed Japan of the legal steps it has decided to pursue in the dispute over Japan's unilateral experimental fishing programme for southern bluefin tuna.

Announcing this development in the dispute, Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hon Simon Upton, said that the actions of Japan's fishing industry would be brought before dispute settlement bodies set up under the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS).

"We believe that the southern bluefin tuna stock is under serious threat", said Mr Upton. "That is why we developed the 1993 Convention on the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna with Australia and Japan. We need to get a firm ruling on whether Japan's decision to increase its catch under an experimental fishing programme (EFP) without the agreement of Australia and New Zealand is contrary to international law."

Acknowledging that initiating this legal action is a serious step, Mr Upton said that the Government was not entering into it lightly. The Minister noted that New Zealand's relationship with Japan is an important but robust one and would withstand this kind of dispute. He was satisfied that submitting the dispute to legal procedures would serve to confine it effectively. Mr Upton noted that both New Zealand and Japan have a tradition of supporting binding settlement of disputes by third parties.

"We, along with the Australian Government, have tried very hard to resolve this dispute. But at the end of the day, the Japanese fishing industry was not prepared to back off from its so-called experimental fishing programme (a programme which involves an additional catch five times the size of the total catch allocated to New Zealand.) Legal resolution became inevitable."

The Government has asked Japan to cease its EFP and has formally notified Japan of the procedures it intends to follow. These would involve as a first step making application to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea which has the authority to grant provisional measures.

Mr Upton continued, "The Government sees the UNCLOS procedures as the best means of settling this dispute in an authoritative and binding manner."

Mr Upton said that Japan now has to respond to the legal steps the Government has initiated. "The clock is running," said Mr Upton. "The legal process will run its course. It should, we hope, bring an end to this dispute and provide us with a sound basis for working with Australia and Japan on the management of southern bluefin tuna under the Law of the Sea Convention and the subsidiary convention set up for that purpose."

Mr Upton concluded: "Obviously, I hope very much that the Government's stand on upholding the law of the sea will prove a turning point particularly for the conservation and sustainable management of southern bluefin tuna and for fish resources in general."