Gridlock at Isahaya Bay

The government will need to take the initiative to break the legal gridlock over the Isahaya Bay dike in Nagasaki Prefecture, as fishermen seek to open the floodgates and farmers try to keep the floodgates closed. Courts have handed down conflicting rulings in the dispute.

Since the government let pass the Dec. 20 deadline mandated by the 2010 Fukuoka High Court decision to open the floodgates so that alleged damage to fisheries could be investigated, an unusual situation now exists in which the government, in an unprecedented move, has failed to act on a finalized court ruling. At the same time, the government has been constrained by a November injunction issued by the Nagasaki District Court, which approved a request sought by local farmers to stop the opening of the floodgates out of fear that incoming seawater could ruin their reclaimed farmland.

Leaving the matter unresolved will only result in both parties being unhappy — fishermen angry over the alleged damage to shellfish and seaweed catches and farmers jittery over damage that might be caused to their farmland if the floodgates are opened. The government has urged the Nagasaki and Saga prefectural governments to enter tripartite talks to break the impasse, but there appears to be little prospect of either prefecture coming even close to the negotiating table.

The ¥250 billion project to reclaim part of the Isahaya Bay on the western tip of the Ariake Sea, which borders Nagasaki, Saga, Fukuoka and Kumamoto prefectures, was based on a 1952 initiative by the Nagasaki prefectural government to reclaim land for agricultural use to meet rising food demand at that time. The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry launched the works in 1989. The floodgates were closed in 1997 to stop the inflow of seawater, and farming on the reclaimed land started in 2008.

Fishermen from neighboring Saga Prefecture urged the government to open the floodgates after they blamed the floodgates for changing the flow of the sea current and thereby causing a radical decline in their fish hauls.

The Fukuoka High Court ruling recognized a causal relationship between damage to fisheries and the reclamation project, and ordered that the gates be opened for five years after three years of preparation to assess the environmental impact.

Some officials reportedly lay blame for the current confusion on former Prime Minister Naoto Kan of the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration three years ago, when it overrode opposition from the farm ministry to accept the high court ruling. Kan was a longtime opponent of the reclamation project, which he called a typical case of wasteful public works spending that would only damage the local environment. But the government needs to realize that the reclamation project, which was carried out under LDP administrations, has divided fishermen whose livelihoods has been severely affected and farmers who settled on the reclaimed land, and created a rift between two prefectures.

The fishermen criticize the central government for having done little to carry out its legal obligation to open the floodgates during the high court-mandated three-year preparation period. The central government says it was unable to proceed with preparatory work because of local opposition. In the Nagasaki court proceedings, it neither made a case for fisheries damage nor endorsed any claims by fishermen. The fishermen say the government — which pushed ahead with the reclamation project in the first place — was reluctant from the beginning to follow the court injunction to open the floodgates.

Court battles could drag on for years more, and a compromise between the parties does not appear likely. Therefore, the central government needs to take the lead in finding a way out of the gridlock. Inaction on the grounds of conflicting court rulings would only leave both sides frustrated.