Coast guard's Maizuru base stands on the front line of Japan's poaching and nuclear concerns

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Located less than 900 kilometers from North Korea and beside Fukui Prefecture’s nuclear power reactors, Japan Coast Guard’s 8th Regional Headquarters in Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, finds some of the nation’s challenges close at hand.

The Maizuru base is one of 11 regional coast guard headquarters nationwide. Its patrol areas include the coasts of Fukui, Kyoto, Hyogo, Tottori and Shimane prefectures.

While tensions along the Sea of Japan coast are rising due to a series of North Korean missile launches, for Maizuru’s fisherman, the more immediate, tangible problem is cracking down on poachers.

“In recent years, illegal fishing and poaching have increased for certain kinds of seafood, like sazae (turban shells) and other fish and shellfish. It’s a big problem for the livelihood of our members. The coast guard seizes the poachers, who are then prosecuted,” said Yasushi Takeda, an executive of the Kyoto Prefecture Fisheries Cooperative Association in Maizuru.

Last year, the coast guard reported that 31 percent of the crimes it handled were violations of fisheries laws, which usually means poaching.

With increased demand among gourmands for high-quality seafood like abalone at high-end Japanese restaurants, and dried sea cucumbers in Chinese restaurants, the coast guard warned that poachers have become far more organized than in the past and were working with criminal gangs to catch certain kinds of seafood that can be sold at a premium.

Sea cucumbers in particular are highly sought after and extremely expensive. In Hokkaido, the coast guard reported, it caught two groups of poachers. The first group had hauled in 518 kg of sea cucumbers with a market value of ¥2.4 million. The second group was caught with 108 kg, valued at ¥400,000.

The Maizuru headquarters is home to 21 patrol ships of varying size, two fixed-wing aircraft and three helicopters scattered across coast guard ports along the Sea of Japan from Fukui to Tottori prefectures.

On one chilly day in late November, hundreds of people lined up to board the authority’s Daisen patrol ship, which also carries a helicopter, for a public tour around Maizuru harbor.

During the harbor trip, crew members explained their different functions, and passengers watched a water rescue drill using the helicopter.

With the theme song from “Pirates of the Caribbean” playing over its loudspeakers, another coast guard ship, the Oki, passed close by. Its crew members demonstrated their athletic skills by climbing up a line tied between the ship’s bow and mast, just like Capt. Jack Sparrow.

“It’s a unique chance for people to observe how coast guard patrol vessels and aircraft operate. As the weather was fine, the experience was a good one for all,” said Keiji Harada, the Daisen skipper.

As for protecting Fukui’s nuclear power plants, coast guard officials were reluctant to provide specific details citing security reasons.

Governors of prefectures along the Sea of Japan hosting nuclear power plants are particularly concerned about a terrorist or missile attack.

In July, the National Governors’ Association submitted a list of actions it wanted the central government to take in regard to safety and disaster prevention at the nation’s nuclear plants.

One of these was closer cooperation between the Self-Defense Forces, the coast guard, police, firefighters and local governments in the event of an armed attack.

“The response of the coast guard at the time of a missile launch is to accurately provide nationally issued warnings and information about the safety of the sea to ships, as well as to confirm their safety with patrol ships and aircraft,” said Takahiro Imade, a spokesman for the Maizuru regional headquarters.

There are also strong concerns about nuclear disasters and evacuation procedures.

On Aug. 27, 2016, the Maizuru coast guard base was part of a drill that simulated an accident at a Fukui nuclear power plant.

The drill involved evacuating residents within a 30-km radius.

In November 2016, lawyers for a group of citizens trying to halt the restart of the Oi nuclear reactors submitted a document to the Kyoto District Court outlining their reasons, one of which touched on potential problems the coast guard could face.

The group warned that one of the harbors planned for an evacuation was quite small, making it difficult for big ships to turn and dock.

The coast guard has set channels of communication for standard emergencies at sea.

The Japan Coast Guard office in Tokyo is responsible for issuing national notices and navigational warnings to mariners in the event of everything from lighthouses that don’t work to earthquakes and tsunami, to reports of pirates in the area or a notice of terrorism or an armed attack — including North Korean missile launches.

Regional coast guard headquarters, meanwhile, are responsible for notifying ships in their areas. Warnings and notices are sent any number of ways, including coastal radio, Kyodo News Fisheries Radio Station, as well was by fax, email, cellphone and very high frequency (VHF) radio. Regional coast guard headquarters issue local navigational warnings in English and Japanese to ships sailing in, or approaching, local ports. Radio, telegraphy and the internet are used for communications. Imade said that broadcasts are not made in Chinese or Korean.

Yoshihiko Yamada, a professor at Tokai University well-versed in maritime security, says cooperation with other countries on different areas, beginning with rescue operations, is possible. But it’s difficult in areas related to state sovereignty.

In the case of piracy, he adds, there is the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against ships in Asia. This agreement among 20 nations is designed to promote and enhance cooperation against piracy and armed robbery against ships in Asia.

“Hopefully, cooperation in areas such as environmental conservation and navigation safety can be strengthened, and that will eventually lead to the development of security cooperation,” Yamada said.

Of course, for fishing vessels, cargo ships and pleasure craft, search and rescue remains the coast guard’s key function.

“Engine trouble on the open sea can be a problem, and some people fall into the ocean without wearing their life vests despite the fact they’re supposed to. With an aging population of fishermen, ensuring their safety when out on the water is a big concern,” said Takeda at the Kyoto Prefecture Fisheries Cooperative Association.

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