Japan’s love affair with Oma’s tuna

Aomori fishermen use a single line to reel in massive hon maguro — the 'black diamonds' of the sea

by Hillel Wright

On Jan. 5, 2001, a 202-kg Pacific bluefin tuna sold at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market auction for $173,000 ($860 per kilogram), making it the most expensive single fish transaction ever recorded.

That Pacific bluefin tuna, known as hon maguro (true tuna) or kuro maguro (black tuna) in Japanese, was caught in the Tsugaru Strait, a narrow and dangerous passage that separates Japan’s main island of Honshu from its northern neighboring island of Hokkaido, and links the Pacific Ocean with the Japan Sea. It was landed at Oma Port on the Shimokita Peninsula, at the northern tip of Honshu. Oma is famous throughout Japan as the port of landing for the highest quality hon maguro, which is dealt almost exclusively to high-end sushi restaurants where gourmands can pay up to and over $100 for a serving of otoro, the fatty belly meat from a giant Pacific bluefin tuna — which are also known as “black diamonds” in this nation.

Because of its association with the best quality and most expensive tuna, Oma, despite being extremely remote and practically inaccessible, has become a favorite location for the Japanese film and television industries. Cooking shows and documentaries featuring Oma and hon maguro, especially in winter, are extremely popular.

In January of this year, a six-hour made-for-TV movie drama called “Maguro” was filmed on location at Oma by Ishihara Productions, Japan’s leading film company, starring a large cast of some of Japan’s most famous actors. It was shown serially on prime time television during the five-day New Year holiday. Its popularity was based not only on the star quality of the cast or the reputation of Oma’s tuna, but primarily on the highly exciting and challenging fishing method exclusive today to Oma, known as ippon zuri — single-hook hand-line fishing — and featured in documentary footage in the movie.

Ippon zuri is done on relatively small boats of about 4.9 tons that are crewed by a fisherman who uses live bait on a single line fed out of a tub placed on the back deck. Bait fish include mackerel, yellowtail (inada), squid, saury, sardine and even flying fish and dolphin fish, and are kept live in wells on board.

One late October day, Toyohide Yonezawa, aged 45, heads out of Oma harbor on the Houryu Maru No. 88, a new, fairly typical ippon zuri fishing boat. His vessel has a little more working space than his father Yutaka Yonezawa’s Houryu Maru No. 77, and the fiberglass deck is less vulnerable to damage than No. 77′s wooden deck.

Today he’s using live mackerel for bait, but next time out it might be young yellowtail — both species are present in large schools around the strait. And where there are large schools of bait fish, there are large schools of tuna. Today the wind is light, the sea fairly calm, and dozens of huge hon maguro can be seen jumping a meter or more out of the water — perhaps out of sheer pleasure at the abundant table?

Yonezawa moves his boat slowly forward, trailing the baited hook behind. The 180-kg test monofilament line is coiled in a light blue plastic tub. Yonezawa lets it run freely through his hands; his white nylon gloves are reinforced with flexible plastic webbing. Suddenly the line zips through Yonezawa’s fingers and straightens out dead astern. The fisherman’s fist closes for a split second as he sets the hook with a sharp backward jerk.

The fish runs as soon as Yonezawa’s fist opens. He plays it hand over hand, pulling quickly until the fish turns and runs again. These fish are big and fast, but tire easily. Once the runs begin to slow down and shorten, Yonezawa edges down the deck toward the mid-ship controls and puts the engine into “jog” mode, just enough forward power to keep the boat’s head to the wind. Next he threads the line into his tuna-puller, an electrically powered reel, and the fish is slowly winched in toward the boat.

The fish struggles awkwardly as it weakens. But Yonezawa knows that it’s still got strength in reserve for one last desperate dash for freedom, so he sends an electrified metal ring down the line to shock and stun the fish. Next, gaff hook at the ready, he pulls the fish, hand over hand again, alongside the boat.

This is a small one, only about 50 kg, so Yonezawa lifts it aboard with the aid of a small boom winch. There is still time to fish, but no more bite the bait today. During the lull in fishing action, I think back to my own days in the 1960s as a hand-line tuna fisherman out of the Pacific Ocean port of Hilo on the windward side of Hawaii. The tuna found in those tropical waters are yellowfin, called ahi in Hawaiian.

They are big fish, which average about 70 kg — a really big one might reach 90 kg — but nowhere near the size of hon maguro. We fished them in the same way that Yonezawa and his fellow ippon zuri fisherman do, with lines coiled in tubs on deck, with one hook baited with a live fish. We used horse mackerel for bait, which is called opelu in Hawaiian and aji in Japanese.

The difference was in the size of the boat and crew. Our boat was 19.5-m long, nearly twice the length of the Houryu Maru, and we carried a five man crew. The skipper, an old Hawaiian, found the fish and steered the boat, while the rest of us manned two hand lines, one on either side of the ship. When a fish took the bait, a smaller man — me or the boat owner — hauled line by hand and a bigger man — one of the two Chinese-Hawaiian brothers Jack and Joe Chow — gaffed the fish aboard with big hooks at the end of long wooden poles. We had no electric or hydraulic tuna-pullers like tuna boats today.

The next day in Oma, the wind is up, the sky overcast, the waves white-capping on a choppy sea. The boat rolls in the swells as Yonezawa makes his way out to the grounds; once again the fisherman baits his hook with mackerel, and the line rushes out of the tub through Yonezawa’s strong fingers.

This fish is a big one, and the fisherman shows his skill in hauling it in quickly when the fish tires and giving slack instantly when the fish runs. Bluefin tuna can reach speeds approaching 80 kph, and holding a line too tightly can tear through gloves and result in nasty rope burns across the palms. Not wearing gloves and foolishly closing my fist on a fighting yellowfin as a novice fisherman in Hawaii, I got the flesh of my right palm torn away to the bone. Being caught in the bight of a line is even worse. In “Maguro,” the hero’s son loses an arm in such an accident.

After 15 minutes of haul line, give slack, haul line, Yonezawa senses that the fish is tired. He makes his way to midship as the boat pitches and rolls in the building waves, and lets the tuna-puller go to work. Soon, just a few meters from the boat, he can see the water roil as the big fish nears the boat. But then a rogue wave lifts the craft and the line goes slack. “Ahhhhhggggghhh! One hundred kilos! Gone!”

I’m instantly reminded of a 90-kg ahi I lost in the ’60s, when the fish were worth $2.20 per kilogram. The old Hawaiian skipper shouted over and over, “Two hundred dollars! Two hundred dollars! “

Back on shore, Yonezawa turns philosophical. Tomorrow’s another day — Tuna Festival day — and indeed, the weather, after a night of strong wind and heavy rain, turns fair. Early in the morning, the Houryu Maru No. 77 and No. 88 leave the harbor, this time carrying inada in their live wells; bigger bait to attract bigger fish.

While the ippon zuri fishery method is certainly the most dramatic, Oma hand-line fishermen also engage in janbo (long pole, short set line) fishing, using a set line of three buoys trailing one baited hook each, set over the Tsugaru Strait’s underwater seamounts. This is usually done before and after the hand-line season, which runs from August to December. The season for both janbo and haenawa, or standard long-line fishing, runs from July to January.

Long-line vessels are larger than janbo or ippon zuri craft and carry a crew of several fishermen, while janbo fishing is done on the same boats, or boats of the same size, as for ippon zuri, carrying a crew of one or two.

The Tsugaru Strait is notoriously dangerous. Five ferries and 1,500 lives were lost there in 1954, prompting the government to build Seikan Tunnel between Honshu and Hokkaido. “The wind blows so hard in winter,” says Yonezawa’s wife, Kazue, “that we don’t have snow. The wind just blows it away.”

It is a testament to the seamanship of Oma’s tuna fishermen that the last life lost in the strait was nearly six years ago, on Jan. 30th, 2002.

One might wonder why such warm-water fish as tuna, flying fish and dolphin fish appear in Northern Japan, even in winter. The answer is to be found in the ocean current. The Tsushima Current is a warm-surface ocean current, a northward-flowing branch of the Kuroshio (Japan) Current, which runs along the Japanese side of the Japan Sea and averages 24 degrees C. At the northern end of Honshu, the current divides, one branch continuing northward along the west coast of Hokkaido and flowing into the Sea of Okhotsk, while the other, called the Tsugaru Current, brings its warm and relatively salty water into the Pacific Ocean through the Tsugaru Strait.

Migrations of warm-water oceanic fish follow this current. On the Asian mainland side of the Japan Sea, three relatively cold and fresh-water currents — the Liman, the North Korea and the Mid-Japan Sea — flow southward.

Soon after ippon zuri hand-line fishing begins in mid-August, Oma holds the Blue Marine Festival. Visitors arrive in tour buses from around Japan to observe the landing of giant tuna and to sample sashimi, kama (grilled or roasted pectoral muscle; kama from a larger Pacific bluefin was auctioned for ¥20,000 this October) and other delicacies that cost a fortune back in their home towns.

The Oma Maguro Matsuri, or Tuna Festival, is held in October, when the fish are said to be in very good eating condition and the weather, though cool and windy, is still mild enough to attract visitors. Once again the tour buses line the harbor, and the aroma of barbecued seafood and the sound of enka — Japanese folk music — fill the air.

Hundreds of locals and tourists crowd into the auction hall to watch expert tuna-carvers, some from as far away as Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, cut the fish into sections, which are then cut into smaller pieces, packaged and sold. Others brave the elements to take a tour on a tsuri bune, or fishing boat, out to nearby Benten Island to get a glimpse of ippon zuri boats in action and to experience the rough, choppy waters of the Tsugaru Strait firsthand.

At around 11 a.m. we head out of Oma harbor on a chartered ippon zuri boat into a stiff 15-20-knot on-shore breeze. Out in the Tsugaru Strait the waves are white-capping and running about 30-60 cm high. Spray washes over the bow and onto the decks. The sound of waves pounding the hull is punctuated by the rattling of the pistons as the engine strains to keep up speed. The skipper runs us out far enough to get a taste of what these tough fishermen face day after day. After getting to the fishing grounds, where we can take a few quick photos of ippon zuri boats, the skipper skillfully turns the boat and the sea becomes calm as we shift to the down-wind tack. The engine quiets and the waves begin to softly hiss as the hull surfs smoothly down the curls.

Later, the action shifts to the fishing cooperative’s dock, where the first landings of the day begin to take place. The fish are lifted off the decks of the boats or pulled out of the water by a crane and placed on a pallet to be measured and weighed. A female worker calls out weights: “198 kilos; 210 kilos; 186 kilos; 209 kilos; 167 kilos.” The last two come from the Yonezawa. Toyohide of the Houryu Maru No. 88 brings in the 209 kg tuna, while shortly after, in comes Yutaka of the No. 77, with a “small” fish of 167 kg.

Before weighing, the fish are gutted and the hearts are offered to the fisherman. If declined, they’re sent to the festival barbecue, and the other offal is left for the flocks of crows and sea gulls lining the edges of the docks. After weighing, the tail is cut off and thrust through the gills. Tsukiji buyers can judge the fat content, and hence the value of a tuna, by observing the exposed meat near the tail, looking for evenly distributed and high fat content.

The Oma logo tag is then affixed to the fish’s head and a forklift transfers it to the loading bay, where it will either be iced and rushed to Tokyo or bought for use in local stores, restaurants and sushi bars. Oma-zaki, the very northernmost tip of Honshu, supports a small but steady tourist trade year-round and is always in need of Oma hon maguro, fresh in season, frozen out.

Back at the Tuna Festival grounds, the barbecue booths begin to shut down around 3 p.m. as the auctioneers and fish carvers close up shop and tour buses head back down the narrow, winding road leading off the Shimokita Peninsula. The festival, if not the fishing, is over for another year. Some of the locals and visitors gather at the local waterfront cafe where shikishi (standardized cards for autographs) from the stars of the “Maguro” movie line the walls. Others return home to their new “mansions,” built with recent profits — tuna prices more than doubled from about $25 per kg in 2002 to over $50 in 2006.

Although quota restrictions on tuna in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Mediterranean Sea — and the burgeoning popularity of sushi in the Americas, Europe and newly affluent China — threaten to affect Japan’s appetite for maguro, Oma, at least for today, is the high-quality tuna center of Japan. And that makes it the tuna capital of the world.

Hillel Wright is Japan correspondent for London-based Fishing News International. His novel “All Worldly Pursuits” (New Orphic) tells the career of the fictional tuna and salmon fisherman Wiley Moon.