Resuscitating Japan’s fishing culture

The efforts by young fishermen engaged on fish culturing on the Uwa Sea, west of Ehime Prefecture, may offer an example of a new direction that Japan’s fishing industry should take in making itself vibrant. In 2009, the Ehime Prefectural Government started a system of certifying fishermen younger than 45 years old who have completed a course to learn the latest fish culture and sales techniques.

So far, 45 people have been certified and 29 of them have established their own fishing cooperative called the Ehime Nintei Gyogyoshi (certified fishermen) Cooperative Union.

About 50 years ago, the culturing of young yellowfish and pearls started in the Uwa Sea. Because of its conditions — a deep sea, long coastline of narrow inlets, nine islands and the Kuroshio Current’s inflow from the Pacific Ocean, the area became Japan’s center of fish culturing. But its future became clouded with the deterioration of the sea environment due to accumulation of feed and the formation of red tides. Following the burst of the economic bubble, even prices of red sea bream, a highly prized fish, started tumbling.

The aim of the certification system is to nurture fishermen who not only produce fish but also have the ability to actively engage in the distribution and selling of their products so that they can get the added-value that used to be monopolized by professional distributors and distributing companies.

Four years have passed since the establishment of the Ehime Nintei Gyogyoshi fishing cooperative. Mr. Yoshiaki Matsumoto, head of the cooperative, said fishermen want consumers to pay prices that match their fish culturing efforts, and that to fulfill their dream, fishermen must sell fish on their own.

In the past, wholesale fish markets had the upper hand in the distribution of fishery products. But these days, high volume sales companies have the upper hand. Even if fishermen ship high-quality fish, these companies may beat prices down.

In these circumstances, it is important that fishermen develop markets and distribution routes through their own efforts.

The Ehime Nintei Gyogyoshi fishing cooperative has opened its own website and registered its own trademark and is carrying out marketing surveys. It directly sells fish to consumers after receiving orders by fax.

Japan boasted the world’s highest fish catch 30 years ago. But in the past 10 years, the number of fishermen has decreased 30 percent to some 200,000. People aged 65 or older account for about 40 percent of Japan’s fishermen.

Fishing is not popular with young people. Working conditions are hard and the annual average income of fishermen engaged in coastal fishing is low at about ¥2.5 million. To attract young people, it is important to turn fisheries into an industry in which fishermen can earn decent incomes. Fish stocks must also be built up.

Japan should take advantage of the fact that its total coastline is 1.5 to two times longer than that of the United States and China. The government should work out measures that will help strengthen fish culturing and even develop it into an export industry like the car and electronics industries.