Deal to protect sharks worries tsunami-hit town


An international agreement to protect sharks could spell trouble for the tsunami-wrecked port of Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture as it struggles to get back on its feet two years after being swept away, locals say.

Shinichi Sato said that although his shark-processing business there has only just restarted, he fears a global vote to regulate trade in several species of the predator could halt the recovery.

“We don’t just take fins and dump the fish in the way now criticized by the world,” Sato said Tuesday as he laid out the boomerang-shape fins to dry in the sun.

“We make very good use of the resources.”

Kesennuma has been Japan’s shark-fin hub since the 19th century, and once dealt with 90 percent of all sharks caught in the country.

As well as the fins, which are used to make shark-fin soup or stew, a highly prized delicacy in China and Japan, other parts are used in the production of supplements such as liver oil, while the skin is used as leather.

Each fishing boat usually returns with about 30 tons of blue sharks. The fins make up around a tenth of this weight. The remaining meat is used in fish sausages, Sato said.

But much of the town, including the processing factories, was swept away when the powerful March 11, 2011, tsunami hit the Tohoku region, killing almost 19,000 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless.

Sato, 39, who has worked in shark processing for a decade, said his business was so severely damaged that it has recovered less than 20 percent of what it was before the catastrophe, which marked its second anniversary Monday.

On the same day, a major wildlife conference in Bangkok — the 178-member Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) — voted to restrict cross-border trade in the oceanic whitetip, the porbeagle and three types of hammerheads, as well as the manta ray.

Conservationists argue that “finning” — slicing the valuable fins from live sharks — is inhumane, as the rest of the animal is typically dumped back into the ocean where it slowly bleeds to death.

Activists hailed the agreement in Bangkok as a major step forward in protecting endangered species.

But for Sato, the mood abroad could spell trouble, even though he does not catch any of the species covered by the deal.

“About 90 percent of sharks we get here are blue sharks, different from those discussed at the wildlife conference,” Sato said. “But I am worried the CITES debate may trigger a price collapse for shark fins.”