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The good news for Japan’s fisheries is that some of its products enjoy growing demand abroad, particularly in some parts of Asia. This year’s government white paper on fisheries stresses the importance of developing overseas markets and highlights a variety of export-oriented initiatives across the country.

The bad news is that the fishing industry, like agriculture and forestry, is plagued by the steady rise in the number of elderly workers. The number of fishery businesses continues to decline, while small coastal fishermen are having a hard time trying to make ends meet.

Still, fishery products remain a major source of protein for the Japanese people, accounting for 20 percent of the population’s overall protein consumption and 40 percent of its animal protein intake. Per capita, Japan is one of the world’s largest consumers of fishery products.

Efforts to promote exports are needed at both the private and public levels. Taking the initiative is the Prefectural Council to Promote Exports of Japanese-Brand Agricultural, Forestry and Fishery Products, which was set up in 2003 by 23 prefectures. By the end of last year, 40 of the nation’s 47 prefectures had joined the body.

The council’s activities include exchanging information on overseas markets, holding product exhibitions abroad and conducting PR campaigns. The export drive is supported, financially and otherwise, by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The ministry has sent its own market-development missions abroad.

Export markets include South Korea, China and Taiwan. To increase foreign demand, though, it is necessary to supply products tailored to consumer needs, including products with higher value added. Of course, essentially the same approach is required to boost domestic demand.

Successful products include akagai shellfish from Sendai Bay, Miyagi Prefecture (used for high-grade sushi) and mackerel from Oita Prefecture. Fishery associations in Nagasaki Prefecture are trying to export a similar type of fish to China.

Since 1999, exports of fishery products have followed a rising trend, reaching 370,000 tons in 2003, up 20.7 percent from the year before. Export value, however, has remained flat due partly to decreasing exports of expensive items such as pearls.

Meanwhile, the nation’s self-sufficiency ratio for fishery products has stopped falling since it rose four percentage points to 57 percent in 2003. Two main reasons given for this are: declines in imports due to a fall in the yen’s exchange value, plus good catches of salmon.

The distribution system has changed markedly, particularly for fresh fish. While neighborhood retail shops, once popular outlets for fish, are falling on hard times, supermarkets are taking a lion’s share — about 70 percent — of overall fish sales.

The international situation surrounding fisheries has also changed significantly. Issues such as fishery compensation are now subjects of negotiation at the World Trade Organization (WTO), and how to liberalize trade in agricultural, fishery and forestry products has become a key question in talks on bilateral free trade agreements.

Last December, South Korea filed a complaint with the WTO against Japan amid allegations that Tokyo’s import quotas for nori seaweed had violated WTO rules. Although a dispute-settlement panel was created in March, it will likely take a long time before a solution is worked out.

The competitive fishing environment is making it increasingly difficult to expand catches. The challenge for fishery businesses is to pursue profits through “qualitative expansion” by supplying products that better meet consumer needs and preferences. The same goes for Japanese businesses generally, which are finding it hard to secure profits through the expansion of sales volume alone.

The qualitative approach, however, requires the rationalization of operations and cost-cutting — which are easier said than done. In the long run, though, doing business as usual is not the answer. The future of the fisheries industry depends heavily on ingenuity, such as the development of products of higher value, as well as on the ability to promote exports.

All this will require stepped-up efforts by fishery groups and the communities involved. There are already promising signs, including a successful experiment in tuna culture. Beyond that, industrial-academic cooperation reasonably can be expected to lead to much-needed technological breakthroughs in the fishing industry.

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