The cuisine of the Ariake Sea in northern Kyushu, featured recently in quarterly cultural magazine Fukuoka Style, is a strange one. It’s dominated by grotesque, unusual-tasting fish and shellfish simmered heavily in sugar and soy or wrapped in dense layers of seaweed.

The Ariake Sea

Unusual customs and farming methods have traditionally surrounded the cuisine. But priorities here are shifting from culture to conservation, as pollution in the Ariake Sea causes severe damage to the area’s marine life.

Surrounded by land on nearly all sides, the Ariake Sea is home to Japan’s largest tidal flats. A recent NHK documentary revealed that ecosystems such as this are inhabited by up to 300 tiny creatures per cubic meter of mud, and tens of thousands of migratory birds stop annually to feed and rest here. Several species of fish or bird not seen elsewhere in Japan are common on tidal flats such as the Ariake Sea’s, which occur in an arc between Japan, Korea and the south China coast.

In autumn, the Ariake Sea is famous for its shellfish. However, such harvests have shrunk enormously, particularly since the Isahaya Bay reclamation project, which began in 1997 and claimed 3,000 hectares of mud flats, exacerbating existing pollution problems and causing oxygen and nutrients in the sea to decline further. Shellfish are known for their ability to purify water, yet excessive contamination has caused catches in tairagai shellfish alone to drop from 2,243 tons in 1996 to almost none this year.

Global warming and pollution are two undoubted damaging factors, according to Isao Hakushima, director of the Saga Prefectural Ariake Fisheries Experimental Station on the Saga Prefecture coast. The center conducts research mostly on the cultivation of nori (laver seaweed), which began here in the 1950s after widespread landfills in Tokyo Bay wiped out the industry there. Today, Ariake’s nori yield accounts for 25 percent of Japan’s total.

While nori appears to be somewhat pollution resistant, the impact of landfill projects may be more damaging. “Landfills and pollution block rivers, which are not only essential for fish to lay eggs in upstream but also bring nitrogen flows downstream, which is essential for nori farming,” Hakushima said.

In the past, farmers dug intricate canal systems to divert fresh water from rivers, effectively mimicking the landscape’s original balanced structure. These canals remain intact in Chiyoda, near Saga, where a maze of waterways weaves crazily through the rice fields. They remain an excellent source of shellfish and rich soil for fertilizer. Irrigation canals were also dug at Yanagawa in Fukuoka Prefecture, but these were enlarged after the Edo Period to form the city castle’s lovely, wide moats.

Simple, gradual land reclamation around the Ariake Sea goes back around 600 years, but during the Edo Period (1603-1867) these efforts increased to create land for rice farming. Hakushima pointed out that rice was equivalent to cash then. However, the proliferation of imported rice today makes this factor redundant. How to use this land in the future remains an unanswered question.

Life on the Ariake Sea has changed little over the years. In museum photos fishermen are shown gliding over the muddy surface on wooden sleds, propelling themselves along while gathering shellfish, eels, seaweed or mudskippers according to the season. Many, including giant jellyfish up to 80 cm in diameter, can still be seen at traditional fishmongers such as Yoshigai in Yanagawa.

Atsuko Yoshigai

Atsuko Yoshigai, a fourth-generation family member at the fishmonger, advises on cooking methods, handles frequent TV crews and enthusiastically promotes the area’s unusual fish. Her family’s shop is a museum of marine life barely seen outside the region, including Bizen-kurage jellyfish (usually prepared as a finely sliced, vinegared side dish) and mekaja, a clam variety so ancient it’s a living fossil. Also in the store are warasubo, an eel-like species of goby with tiny pointed teeth nicknamed “space aliens” by local children.

Most famous is the mutsugoro (mudskipper), perhaps the Ariake Sea’s quirkiest character. Employees at Yoshigai boast that mudskippers’ popularity extends as far as Nagoya and Tokyo, although you won’t find them on the menus of local restaurants. Fishermen hardly catch them anymore because even local consumers prefer beef. Bug-eyed and multifinned, today mutsugoro are served at festive occasions, or in special ekiben (boxed lunches sold at railway stations) enjoyed by curious travelers.

More significantly, mudskippers have become a symbol of the tidal flats. Their odd appearance and goofy leaps in Ariake’s shallows have helped boost public awareness of conservation efforts and draw participants to mud-flat eco-tours and the annual Gatalympics (mud flat Olympics). Easily caricatured, mudskippers have also come to adorn most materials produced by environmental groups in the area.

Mutsugoro the mudskipper

Nevertheless, efforts to preserve Ariake’s environment appear to be moving at a painfully slow pace, even on the part of local governments. In Yanagawa, tourism authorities clean the city canals daily but don’t touch the adjoining Ariake Sea. “Fishermen take care of that,” a city hall official explained. Fishermen in the area are increasingly out of work, so one wonders how much power they have to clean the Ariake.

An estimated half of Japan’s once-extensive mud flats have been filled in over the centuries, so it is evident that concern about the effects of this kind of development is a recent phenomenon. But signs of progress can be seen in the move to scrap reclamation plans at Nakaumi in Shimane Prefecture and the news that the Isahaya reclamation project will be reconsidered at last.

Local efforts have taken the initiative, but NGO- and government-supported groups in other parts of the country are beginning to form cooperative links with environmental groups fighting for similar tidal flats in Korea, or for migratory bird routes that run from Australia to East Siberia and Alaska. Mud flats are not just part of Japan’s environmental headache: They are everybody’s problem.

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