Fishermen take matters into own hands

Debate rages over whether to privatize local fisheries


Special To The Japan Times

The fine drizzle falling on the picturesque fishing village of Kyubun, Miyagi Prefecture, is dampening Toshikazu Takahashi’s normally sunny disposition.

The unfavorable weather has scuppered plans by Takahashi and 35 fellow fishermen to start cleaning up the battered quay just 50 meters from where his home once stood, and assemble bamboo rafts in preparation to cultivate the area’s renowned oysters.

“We have waited and waited but neither the central nor the prefectural government will do anything, so we’ve decided to get on with it ourselves,” said Takahashi, 54, who lives in a tent erected on the bare foundations of his home together with his wife, Teruyo, mother, Mitsuko, and their poodle, Denmaru.

“The fishermen here want to get working as soon as possible. We have no boats, no nets, no home, but we love the sea. If you don’t love the sea, you can’t be a fisherman.”

It’s a brave sentiment from someone whose community was obliterated by his beloved sea, taking with it the lives of friends and relatives.

Yet almost three months since the March 11 quake and tsunami devastated the Tohoku region, fishermen throughout the affected coastal areas are done with dwelling on the horrors of March.

“We are all pulling together to get things back on track,” said another Kyubun fisherman, 27-year-old Yu Ando, adding that the income loss inflicted on his 250-strong community by the twin disasters is between ¥300 million and ¥400 million. “Now we are rescuing anything that can be reused. We have to start somewhere.”

Almost 115 km north in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, Kenichiro Yagi, whose fisheries company was swept away by the tsunami, spearheaded a movement among local fishermen to restart operations as early as two weeks after the disaster struck.

He has since hauled back to sea four fishing boats that survived the tsunami, and fishermen in his team are now casting nets for cod, plaice and octopus. With no fish market or refrigeration equipment, data on their catch are sent out in real time to customers via on-board computers and orders collected as the day’s haul is unloaded at the dock.

“Little by little people were getting disheartened, saying that this was just a pipe dream,” said Yagi, 34, as he cleared out a former 24-hour store gutted by the disaster that he plans to use as the new office for his online marine produce venture. “But we wanted to show them it could be done, and fortunately there were many fishermen who said they wanted to join us. The majority of people living here work in fisheries. We have no choice but to look forward.”

With an estimated 17,000 fishing boats and more than 300 harbors totally or partially destroyed on March 11, Yagi admitted reviving the area’s fisheries will require sacrifices.

“The hard truth is there is no money to repair the ports and boats, so we will need to change our game plan, create fewer ports and divide usage of those ports between several different cooperatives,” Yagi said. “Now is the perfect opportunity to do it . . . we can literally rebuild from scratch.”

Yagi’s views reflect those of some officials, notably Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai and former Fisheries Research Institute Executive Director Masayuki Komatsu, who have proposed an overhaul of the region’s fisheries, including a realigning of fishing rights to make it easier for private companies to invest in the region’s fisheries.

One of Komatsu’s recommendations is for fisheries centers to develop integrated facilities for storage and distribution.

Yet it is the issue of encouraging private investment, including that from foreign companies, that Komatsu sees as a way of rescuing the region’s wrecked fisheries and aquaculture industries, which, respectively, accounted for 14.4 and 23.3 percent of the national totals of 4.15 million tons and 1.2 million tons in 2009.

“Small fishing villages are very closed, and therefore outside companies . . . are not able to enter these communities under the present system,” said Komatsu, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies specializing in policy for ocean and marine resources. Without government and private subsidies, Tohoku’s fisheries cooperatives would be bankrupt, he added.

“It is quite clear that if we maintain the status quo, fishing communities will remain closed, private investors will stay away and the situation will only worsen. There is no other option available. If we do not act, the future will just be more and more subsidies. Fisheries cooperatives must try to make profits from their core business of selling fish,” he said.

While Komatsu insists that most Tohoku municipal leaders agree with or do not oppose his proposals, many local fishermen are up in arms.

Miyagi fisheries cooperatives have actively opposed Gov. Murai’s proposals, arguing that private investment would ultimately lead to instability and possible collapse of local fisheries.

“Under the existing law there is nothing stopping corporate participation,” said one Miyagi fisherman who asked not to be named. “In fact, there have been examples of this in the past, where a large fisheries company came in and at first increased the number of fisheries workers. But the moment market prices fell, the company pulled out, and numerous fishermen went bankrupt or out of business.

“Fishermen here have been working the sea for hundreds of years. Why should we surrender all of that hard work to fly-by-night private investors?” he asked.

Richitaro Abe, an official at the Miyagi Prefecture Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, concurred, saying: “If large companies that prioritize profits are allowed in, we will be treated as employees who, should things go bad, will be out of work and left with nothing. Our communities will be wiped out once again.”

Many fishermen, Abe said, simply want the government to give them a hand in getting things back to how they were before.

But whether this is possible is still hotly debated, especially due to the lingering doubts regarding contamination from the damaged Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

At Tokyo’s Tsukiji market, wholesalers report that demand for produce from Tohoku and most parts of the nation from overseas has slumped dramatically since the nuclear accident.

“Orders are down by two-thirds overall,” said Masaaki Tao of wholesaler Masamaru Co.

“They are scared of Japanese fish because of the nuclear issue. Until someone in authority stands up and says it is safe, it will only get worse.”

Domestic buyers are also caught between a rock and a hard place, said Tao.

“They want to support the disaster victims but also must attend to their customers’ needs. What can they do? They are running a business.”

The reaction from Tokyo buyers frustrates Miyagi fisherman Takahashi.

“The scientific data is there. The waters here have been given the green light. We all worry about the negative impact of rumors, of course, but for now, that’s irrelevant,” he said.

“We can’t even get out into the waters to fish. That’s all we want to do. We have the knowhow, we have the will. Now we just need the government to help us on our way.”