SENDAI – On one early morning, fisherman Shunsuke Akama gently pulled seaweed using a 5-meter stick onto his boat off the Sanriku coast, which was ravaged by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami five years ago.
“The stem is soft. It’s a good harvest,” Akama, 32, said, touching the sargassum, a type of seaweed popularly consumed as health food.
Akama is not only a fisherman but a founding member of Fisherman Japan, which aims to improve industry cooperation in the disaster-hit region, traditionally one of Japan’s top seafood-producing areas.
Akama, from Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture, and fellow seaweed farmer Shota Abe, 30, from Miyagi’s Ishinomaki launched the association in July 2014 to bring together representatives of fishing ports and fisheries cooperatives — parties that previously were notoriously disparate.
Fisherman Japan also aims to change the perception among young people that the fisheries industry is dirty and dangerous, and instead show them it can be innovative, financially rewarding and even “cool.”
“It is absolutely vital for us to arouse interest in the fisheries industry for it to be revived. Cooperation is (imperative),” said Akama, who is an executive member of the group, adding that fishery work did not make the list of 100 most desirable jobs in a recent survey of youngsters.
“The disaster took . . . a lot (away) from us, but I wouldn’t have met . . . everyone (at Fisherman Japan) if it weren’t for the disaster,” said Abe.
Among the 14 members constituting Fisherman Japan is the owner of a pub where customers can take part in an auction of the fish that will be served. Another member, a scallop farmer, has begun operating fishing boats for tourists.
Yuki Tsuda, a 34-year-old fishmonger, says it is crucial for the industry to eliminate the vertical divisions that separate fishermen, markets, brokers, retailers and restaurants.
“If we can change this situation and complement . . . one another, we can accomplish anything,” he said.
Tsuda recently sold fresh marine products caught by Akama and other members of Fisherman Japan under the association’s banner at a shopping center in Ishinomaki.
“Fishermen are considered to be in a weak position because they are far away from markets, but their potential is unlimited if they really consider how best to sell their products,” said Akama, who calls himself a “fisherman on land” and publishes brochures on how to serve the seafood he sells.
Fisherman Japan holds promotional events at major supermarkets and bars, and sells products online under its brand. First-year sales topped the group’s target of ¥60 million.
By 2024, the group aims to attract 1,000 more people to the local fisheries industry, a difficult goal given that young people prefer high-paying jobs, such as construction work for rebuilding areas damaged by the quake, tsunami and nuclear calamity of 2011.
To lure aspirants, Abe has opened a share house for young people interested in engaging in fishery work in the future.
Before becoming a fisherman, Akama, born into a seaweed farming family in Shiogama, worked as a bartender in Sendai after graduating from college in Ishinomaki. He next opened a restaurant in his hometown. But after the business proved unprofitable, he closed it and returned to the family business eight years ago.
He now dreams of opening a seafood restaurant.
“Work as a fisherman in the morning and a restaurant owner in the afternoon. I want it to be a place where people can enjoy local seafood,” Akama said.
The family lost three fishing boasts to the tsunami, but Akama rarely talks about it, out of respect for those who went through worse, particularly the loss of loved ones.
Nevertheless, he believes the disaster gave him a chance to change the local fishing industry.