Between 20 and 30 percent of Japan’s marine fisheries production was lost in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake that struck the Tohoku region of northeastern Honshu on March 11, 2011, followed by huge tsunamis and explosions and reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. In consequence, the importance of the nation’s western and southern ports and fisheries has naturally increased.

A typical example is Kagoshima Fishing Port. Opening onto the East China Sea, and with the Yellow Sea to the west, this is located in Kagoshima City (pop. 600,000), the capital of Kagoshima Prefecture at the southern end of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. The prefecture also administers the Amami Islands and the northern part of the Ryukyu chain (the southern part of which is Okinawa Prefecture). The port’s location gives its fishing fleet access to both temperate and sub-tropical zones and as a result hundreds of varieties of fish, copepods, mollusks, crustaceans and seaweeds are landed there each year.

Kagoshima Prefecture is home to 9,000 of Japan’s 222,000 commercial fishermen and hosts more than 4,000 fishing boats. Of these, the city’s fishing port berths more than 300, which together produce around 25 percent of the prefecture’s average annual total of 90,000 tons — constituting about 1.8 percent of Japan’s annual average of 5 million tons from its 47 prefectures combined.

Overall, by species, the various tunas led Kagoshima Prefecture’s landings with an average of 18,300 tons per year throughout the five years from 2005 to 2009 (the latest data available). Next came squid (ika), with 13,000 tons, followed by mackerel (saba), with 11,000 tons, sardines (iwashi), with 9,500 tons, and skipjack tuna (katsuo), with 9,100 tons. Meanwhile, at Kagoshima Fishing Port official figures for 2009 show mackerel as the leading species landed, with 7,350 tons, followed by jack mackerel (aji), with 5,530 tons, sardines weighing in at 2,150 tons, whitebait (shirasu), with 1,210 tons and skipjack at 930 tons.

As the leading species caught by fishermen in Kagoshima correspond with most of the important species formerly caught by fishermen in the Tohoku region, it would seem obvious that those and other Kyushu and Okinawa fishermen could help fill the void caused by the loss of boats and port facilities in Tohoku and the closure of numerous fisheries due to excessive levels of radiation. Indeed, following a 25 percent reduction in fish delivered at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo on March 12, 2011, compared with the same day in 2010, seafood from western and southern Japan had restored deliveries to 99 percent year-on-year by the end of April 2011.

Tadahide Noro, who is dean of the faculty of fisheries at Kagoshima University, recently told this writer that the closure of most fisheries in Tohoku has caused a 30 percent reduction in the amount of fish delivered to domestic markets. However, even though fishermen in southern and western Japan have lost their traditional sales to markets in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan — which are boycotting all Japanese seafood — they are being very slow to shift sales to plug domestic shortfalls. This, said Noro, is because of the need to reorganize existing marketing patterns.

As absurd as this may seem, it stems from the fact that for ages fishing in Japan was a family tradition that had become conservative and resistant to change. But with young people now increasingly moving to the cities rather than following in their forebears’ footsteps, new routes and connections are now necessary, Noro explained. However, he also predicted that the private sector — fishing companies, distributors and retailers — will play a larger role in revamping Japan’s fishing industry, while universities will train a new generation of young fishermen and women from all over the country.

In fact, Noro said his university was already active in developing fisheries in Southeast Asian nations and was actively liaising with the University of the Philippines in Visaya and the University of Putra Malaysia. His faculty — with more than 700 undergraduate and postgraduate students — has also worked together with Kagoshima fishermen to modernize skipjack fisheries in Southeast Asia by introducing larger, motorized fishing vessels. As well, it now offers its students — a third of whose postgrads are from countries including Bangladesh, China, Eritrea, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Kuwait, the Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Myanmar, the Philippines, South Korea, Tanzania, Tonga and Vietnam — courses in fishery biology, oceanography, aquaculture, capture fisheries, food science and fishery economics. And it even operates two research vessels, the 1,230-ton Kagoshima Maru and the 170-ton Nansei Maru, which provide students with onboard training in navigation, seamanship, fishing gear operation, ocean research, meteorology and fishery sampling.

Such dynamism as Kagoshima University is exhibiting with regard to fostering modern fishery skills is, however, in regrettable contrast to the generally unchanging ways of the 34.2 percent of Japan’s 222,000 fishermen and fishery workers who are aged 65 or older — with only 3 percent aged 15 to 24 and 7.6 percent aged from 25 to 34.

So of necessity, along with encouraging careers in commercial fishing by the fishery high schools and universities, recruiting foreign crew — especially young men from Indonesia — is helping to keep Japan’s fishing fleet afloat.

Indeed, on recent visits by this writer to Naha fishing port in Okinawa and Yaizu fishing port in Shizuoka Prefecture on the Pacific coast of central Japan, Indonesian fishermen were evident in some numbers — and seemingly quite content with their jobs and workplace conditions. Such contentment is in direct contrast to a recent report by Quentin Bates, an editor at Fishing News international, on the plight of Burmese fishermen working in Thailand, Cambodian fishermen working in Malaysia and Indonesian fishermen working in South Korea. In all these instances, Bates details physical and psychological abuse and the witholding of pay that amounts to virtual slavery.

In Naha, by contrast, Aresh, a crewman on the 19-ton offshore longliner the Hatsue Maru, told this writer that the vessel had a crew of between five and eight Indonesian deckhands and a Japanese captain, mate and engineer. One of the Indonesians also serves as the cook, providing halal meals for Muslim Indonesians, including beef, chicken and fish in place of pork, which is a staple in Okinawan cooking. The Indonesian crew do not drink alcohol, which makes for smoother shipboard relationships and an easier life for the Japanese deck boss.

Aresh also explained that his basic pay is ¥70,000 per month, as salary, rather than crew share, although a bonus of between ¥10,000 and ¥20,000 is paid if the boat deivers 19 to 20 tons. He said they had recently been fishing around Palau in Micronesia, which involves seven days to get there, 20 days’ fishing and another seven-day return trip. The main target species is yellowfin tuna (kihada maguro), although albacore (tombo or bin-naga maguro), bigeye tuna (mebachi maguro), marlin (kajiki) and swordfish (mekajiki) are also caught.

Fishermen get meals and free accommodation ashore in addition to their monthly salary and given the exchange rate of 119 Indonesian rupiah to ¥1, they are able to send a generous amount of money home. Naha fishing port also provides a dormitory for Indonesian crew ashore and fishermen have complete freedom of the harbor on days off. This writer has often seen Indonesian crewmen enjoying such portside events as the Naha Dragon Boat Race Festival and the Naha Tuna Festival.

In Yaizu, meanwhile, an Indonesian crewman named Tofik, who speaks English and Japanese as well as Indonesian Malay, told this writer that his ship, the 300-ton far-seas, pole-and-line skipjack (katsuo) boat Nikko Maru No. 1 carries a crew of 12 Indonesian deckhands and three Japanese — the captain, deck boss, and cook. He said they can catch 300 tons of skipjack in 30 days on a good trip, but sometimes it takes as long as 60 days. The crew gets Sundays off while in port and leisure activities such as cycling around town or playing the guitar on the back deck were observed. In addition, in September 2011, Yaizu’s Tosakatsuo Suisan pole-and-line skipjack fishery received certification from the independent, nonprofit, London-based Marine Stewardship Council as a sustainable fishery — which accords it the right to carry the MSC eco-label on its products.

As well as the four main islands of Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku, Japan also has more than 6,000 others, which together account for around 25,000, or 12.1 percent, of the nation’s 222,000-plus fishermen and fishery workers and ¥155 billion, or 9.9 percent, of its total marine fishery production of ¥1.6 trillion. Indeed, on these small islands the fishing industry accounts for 70 percent of primary production.

One example is 7.6-sq.-km Aguni Island 60 km west of Okinawa Island, which has one bar, one policeman, no restaurants and no convenience stores. It is, though, home to 700 people and 27 commercial fishing boats berthed in its two harbors.

Fishermen here are seasonal fisher/farmers. From April to mid-September they fish in coastal waters for tuna, mahi-mahi (aka common dolphinfish) and marlin, on the reefs for groupers and parrotfish and in deep water for snappers. Then, from September to March they tend their sugarcane fields or work at other local occupations. For instance, while on Aguni Island, this writer met one such fisher/farmer named Masahiko Shinjo, skipper of the 9-meter, 4.9-ton boat he uses to fish for tuna and black marlin (kuro-kajiki). His biggest fish to date was a 165-kg black marlin in April 2009, which fetched ¥82, 500 at the time.

As of 2010, Japan was producing 62 percent of the fish and seafood it consumed. Its population still consumed more fish per capita — 57 kg per year — than any other country, even though this was down from 70 kg at the beginning of the 21st century.

Although the consensus of traders at the world’s biggest fish market — Tsukiji in Tokyo — look for Japan’s fishery to return to normal by 2013 or 2014, in an interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, Takeshi Minami, chief researcher for the Norinchukin Research Institue Co., a subsidiary of the Tokyo-based Norinchukin Bank, predicted that recovery to normal levels would take at least five to 10 years from the time of the disaster.

As soon as this may seem in light of the devastation wrought by both nature and a major utility operator on March 11, 2011, it will certainly be all the more likely thanks to the friendly ties established with developing nations’ fishing communities, both by hiring their fishermen, treating them well and helping them to develop more efficient fisheries that could export product to Japan.

As well, it will be of long-term benefit that due to the disasters new routes must be established through privatization to bring fish and seafood from southern and western Japan to Tsukiji. So, too, will be the future benefits of training a new generation of skilled young professionals at Japan’s many fisheries high schools and university departments.

All in all, in the fullness of time even the huge cloud that shrouded the nation in March last year may turn out to have a silver lining for its entire fishery industry and its ability to put healthy fish and seafood on the menu for a long time to come.

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