Since Japan’s first catch-and-release area opened on Yamagata Prefecture’s Sagae River in July 1997, the number of such areas has grown to more than 30 across the country. In these areas, anglers generally report bigger, more satisfying catches, as by releasing the fish they are being allowed to live longer, grow bigger and breed. But fishing experts say merely creating more catch-and-release areas will not save Japan’s ailing inland fisheries.
Currently about 4 billion fish a year are raised in captivity and then released, according to the Fisheries Agency. Despite this, experts say so many fish are caught and not returned to the water by anglers, that there are almost none left after each season.
“Catch-and-release is not a total solution,” said an official with Trout Forum, a small organization based in western Tokyo that has been campaigning for 12 years for better inland fisheries. “But when I say that, I get lots of complaints from people who are opposed to releasing fish in general — and also from people who think poorly of those who don’t practice catch-and-release.”
The fundamental problem, experts say, is that there is no national supervision of Japan’s 32,000-odd rivers, streams and lakes. The right to maintain inland fisheries has been given to some 850 fishing cooperative associations across the country.
On paper, it is relatively easy to form such an association. All you need are two people, one of whom has gone to an inland water body to fish at least 30 days out of the year. If you commit to maintaining the fish stocks by replenishing them every year, and you are granted permission by the prefectural government, you can charge people at a government-approved rate of about 1,000 yen a day to fish in your area.
In reality, the right to raise fish in virtually every body of water that’s suitable has already been granted to one association or another, according to the National Federation of Freshwater Fishing Cooperative Associations, with licenses coming up for renewal only once every 10 years.
“It would be fine if those associations were doing a good job but, in fact, they are the ones that are causing the most trouble,” said Seiji Sato, Gunma Prefecture’s fisheries commissioner.
“The people running those associations have been doing the same job for 10, 50 or 60 years. Even if they are performing a public duty, they treat it as if it were a private business. So toward us fishers, the attitude is that we are in the way. It’s a closed society. In that environment, it is difficult to have fish remain in the water.”
Last year, Gunma became the first prefecture to set up regulations so that fines can be levied on those who take fish from its two 2-km-long catch-and-release areas on the Kannogawa River.
A 1999 study after a test period found there were 17 egg beds in the area. In the no-rules area, there were no eggs and no spawning fish.
“Despite the lack of a legal structure, we found we could do some good,” said Sato. He added that he doubts the national government will go to the effort of making a law that will affect all of the inland fisheries.
The chief director of the National Federation of Freshwater Fishing Cooperative Associations, Minoru Sato, said he opposes forcing anglers to release their catch.
“It is no good to have people say, ‘This is the way it must be done,’ ” he said. “There are people who want to fish in order to eat their catch. While the number of such people is declining, many still think they will be losing out if they don’t take home the fish that they catch [since they paid for the fishing license],” he said. “To make sure people obey the rules all of the time, it might be best to create a law, but I don’t really want to cooperate in making that happen.”
Moreover, the Trout Forum spokesman said that the popularity of catch-and-release areas can sometimes be bad for the environment since river bottoms are often bulldozed to create pools from which their stocked fish will not escape.
“Creating catch-and-release areas where there were no fish to begin with can do more harm than good,” he said.
Short of overhauling the system, the nation’s cooperative associations just need to learn that anglers don’t require a large amount of fish, said Morio Sato, chairman of the nonprofit organization Japan Fly Fishers.
“A lot of us just want to go to the mountains, and if there are clean fish and clean waters, that’s enough, we will spend money,” he said. “We will buy mountain products and fill our cars up with gasoline while we are in town. Local associations haven’t looked into that aspect of fishing. They need to. They need to know how to make a business out of keeping their natural environment in better shape.”