Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market — the largest in the world — is oddly quiet early afternoon. Yet climb a steep flight of steps above a small warehouse and the pace is frenetic.
This is the main office of seafood wholesaler Kamewa Shoten, where orders are processed and distribution organized. While most of the 66 full-time and part-time staff are busy within the mainstream industry of supplying restaurants and stores in bulk, some are involved in ground-breaking work: providing food security by following individual fish from hook to table.
“Associated with the London-based nonprofit organization Marine Stewardship Council, we are the first company in Japan to be certified to MSC’s environmental standard. We’re MSC-approved as a supplier of seafood produced by sustainable bfishing,” says Kazuhiko Wada, president of Kamewa Shoten.
Wada’s grandfather founded the company in 1938. His father took over in the 1950s. Now aged 44, Wada began working for his father nearly 20 years ago. “When I was 5, my father was delighted when I said I wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“As a teenager though I changed my mind. After majoring in economics at university, I worked as a computer programmer. Then at age 28 I had a change of heart. I decided to stand behind my father, continue the family business.”
Initially, Kamewa Shoten operated as a distribution company, buying Alaskan wild salmon and black cod at auction to meet orders. In 1995, however, things began to change. “One of our important customers, the international supermarket chain Kinokuniya came to us, asking to buy supplies from us as well as another company. Then we began to look for special fish being caught in and around Japan. They had to be good enough that they could be sold easily even without being sent to the main market here in Tsukiji.”
In 1998, the other company supplying Kinokuniya with fish stopped importing seafood and moved into blueberries. “They asked if we could carry on, develop the business even further.”
Kamewa Shoten now specializes in two types of Alaskan salmon (king and koho), two types of cod (black and ling) and spotted prawns. “We handle 20 to 30 tons a year in total. It’s not a large amount, but supplying supermarkets like Kinokuniya, National Azabu, Nisshin, Meidi-ya and top-end restaurants and hotels, the quality is exceptional.” The highest quality is fish sold with MSC approval.
“From October we began an online service, providing king salmon through the mail order store Panda Shop, organized by the global conservation organization WWF. A percentage of all profits go toward protecting the environment.”
Wada’s interest in environmental matters goes back a long way, but it was less than a decade ago that he became active. “I became aware of the work of Shigeatsu Hatakeyama, who fishes scallops and oysters off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture.
“Noticing that the quality of marine life was deteriorating, he began to seek solutions. Through talking with environmentalists and scientists, Hatakeyama-discovered that local forests needed to heal.
“Iron — vital to breeding healthy shellfish — needed leaf-fall on the hillsides to break down toxic elements in the soil, so that drainage into the ocean was healthy. Planting fir trees was no good. The sea needed mixed forests.
“After reading his book, ‘Mori wa Umi no Koibito’ (The Sea Yearns for the Forest) I first visited his ‘farm’ seven years ago. Now every July, we go there as a family one Sunday, planting trees and helping out.
“We also take along each year’s freshman recruits and one or two other employees, so that they can see solutions in action.”
Kameya Shoten’s main supplier is Triad Fisheries Ltd in southeast Alaska, founded by famed local fisherman, Bruce Gore.
“Every year Bruce and I discuss amounts and prices.” Wada is much impressed by the Alaskan state government’s stance on fishing. “Their control of the industry is very carefully regulated. Anyone breaking the rules is arrested and fined or sent to prison. Tough, yes, but really there is no other way.
“Out in the ocean, where most of the fish we eat are caught, there are no rules. That’s why the ocean is emptying.”
Each fish caught by Triad is opened, cleaned and frozen within two hours. It is then given a number, which can be tracked from source to plate. So saying, Wada fetches a pack of frozen fillets and explains the label, which concludes, “You’ll love the taste! The sea will love the help!”
He heard about MSC from a trade reporter. “It seemed a really good way to explain to customers how sustainable fishing works, so I made contact.”
Four or five other more Japanese companies have passed MSC’s stringent rules, but right now Kamewa is the only one supplying products.
Right now sustainable fishing is a very small part of Kamewa’s business. How it grows depends on whether Japan is willing to change its attitude toward eating fish. In the U.K., the general public is all too aware that the North Sea is nearly fished out of cod, making fish and chips a luxury rather than the regular Friday night fare of even 20 years ago.
“By contrast most Japanese don’t realize that fish are disappearing. They’re just happy to eat cheaper. The key is education: social and environmental responsibility,” says Wada. In 10 years’ time he would like to see sustainable fishing providing 10-20 percent of his company’s business. Right now it is less than three percent.
“But it is a beginning,” he says, replacing a magnificent king salmon in its MCS-tagged wrapper. “We have begun.”