National | Regional Voices: Hokkaido

Hokkaido farms and fisheries hit as campus closure robs them of workers

Hokkaido Shimbun

The agriculture and fisheries industry in the northeastern Hokkaido region of Okhotsk is facing a serious labor shortage.

Tokyo University of Agriculture’s Okhotsk campus, in the city of Abashiri, was closed as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, leading to a sharp decline in the number of students living in the city and working part-time in the sector.

The university plans to hold online lectures until the end of July, followed by summer vacation, meaning the impact is likely to continue for an extended period.

Among the 1,473 students enrolled at the Okhotsk campus, roughly 60 percent — and only half of first-year students — remained in the city after the campus was shut down, according to the university.

Because more than 90 percent of the students come from outside Hokkaido, the university has asked agriculture and fisheries cooperatives in the region to refrain from hiring students who have not been in the city for two weeks or longer, to prevent them from becoming a source of infection.

The Abashiri Fisheries Cooperative, which was set to begin releasing scallop spats at the end of May, needs to hire some 750 part-time workers to sort them and for other tasks.

Usually, the university’s students make up about 70 percent of workers. However, in late April, since it can’t depend on students this year, the city’s Fisheries Promotion Council advertised part-time positions in newspapers and the city’s public relations magazine for the first time.

Officials from the fisheries cooperative spoke with acquaintances and dealers, and barely managed to secure enough workers. Takashi Tamura, head of the cooperative’s scallop aquaculture group, said, “We always have a hard time securing part-time workers every year, so we were really worried what would happen this year.”

“We will make sure that infection prevention measures will be taken during work, including body temperature checks, the use of face masks and alcohol disinfectants,” Tamura said.

The agriculture sector is facing a similar problem. The town office of Ozora in the region, which dispatches a total of some 200 students from the university each year to farms as part-timers, has stopped its service this year in response to the university’s policy amid the spread of novel coronavirus infections.

“I was expecting to have around 10 students work for me to sow pumpkin seeds, but since they are not coming I’m at a loss about what to do,” said a farmer in the town.

An agricultural cooperative in the town of Memanbetsu in the region is also worried that farms planting Chinese yams and pumpkins manually will be hit hard by the labor shortage.

According to estimates by Sapporo-based Hokkaido Research Institute for the Twenty-first Century, students of the university who work part-time have the effect of expanding the region’s production by some ¥9.02 billion for agriculture and some ¥4.48 billion for fisheries.

On that basis, part-time student workers make up roughly 5.1 percent of agricultural production and 6.8 percent of fisheries production in the region in terms of value.

This section features topics and issues from Hokkaido covered by the Hokkaido Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the prefecture. The original article was published on May 12.

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