WAKAYAMA – A small town attraction in southern Wakayama Prefecture has seen its financial fortunes turned around by crustacean enthusiasts eager to keep the self-proclaimed “poorest aquarium in Japan” afloat — and the local community is reaping the benefits.
The Aquarium of Crab and Shrimp located in the town of Susami, population 4,000, was on the verge of ruin due to financial difficulties.
But after surviving the crisis is now flourishing with popular crustacean exhibitions.
Some 150 species of aquatic creatures, such as the rare red-and-white striped hingebeak shrimp and Tasmanian giant crab, are on display in the building, which was transformed from a gymnasium at a shuttered junior high school.
The aquarium had humble beginnings, its first display being a tank installed in 1997 in a waiting room at a train station.
The locals responsible were looking to give their little town a boost, and they enlisted the help of the town’s fishermen to make it happen.
In 1999, an abandoned restaurant was renovated to turn the humble fish tank into an aquarium specializing in lobsters and crabs, including Japanese spiny lobsters captured using fishing nets — the production of which is the main industry of Susami.
Initially, the town shouldered all the aquarium’s operating costs, and visitors were charged no entrance fee.
However, from 2005 the aquarium’s financial situation deteriorated as the subsidies from Susami began to dry up.
To cut spending lights were dimmed, staff were enlisted to paint billboards and ads were placed in newspapers soliciting donations for equipment.
“Certainly we were the poorest aquarium in Japan back then,” said Atsushi Hirai, 34, the facility’s acting director.
Despite the efforts, the town decided to end its financial support for the facility in 2010 and the aquarium was set to be closed.
However, thanks to protests by town residents and the determination of aquarium staff, the facility survived and was relocated in 2015 to its current home in a roadside rest area that features shops selling local products.
The annual number of visitors has roughly tripled to 90,000 since the move to the more visible location, supported by popular Christmas exhibitions showcasing colorful crustaceans, according to operators.
Special events, such as experiments on the gripping power of coconut crabs and the ecology of water-spraying crabs, are also regularly conducted at a marine environment study center that was built adjacent to the aquarium in 2016.
The recently rising profile of the aquarium can also be attributed to rare creatures on display like blue lobsters and a crab that has a shell resembling a human face.
Hiroshi Katsumata, 55, the head of Kamogawa Sea World — an aquarium known for performances by orca and dolphins in Chiba Prefecture — said it is important to have a variety of offerings to ensure financial viability, as facilities in some regions are suffering from a declining number of visitors due to a shrinking population.
“Even new aquariums are facing the issue of decreasing numbers of visitors not long after they open, because people grow tired of them,” Katsumata said.
Hirai said being considered the poorest is not all bad as long as the Wakayama aquarium keeps on showcasing its unique appeals.
“Although we are probably the aquarium with the least amount of money in Japan, we may hold the widest variety of (crustacean) species and provide the greatest fun in the world. I want many people to enjoy our marine creatures and the abundance of the sea around Wakayama,” he said.