The legal gridlock over the Isahaya Bay dike in Nagasaki Prefecture continues as the government keeps paying fines each day for failing to honor a finalized Fukuoka High Court ruling in 2010 that ordered the state to open the floodgates to probe the link between the closure of part of the bay and local fisheries damage. Meanwhile, the Nagasaki District Court earlier this month rejected the government’s objection to its 2013 injunction that prohibited the state from opening the gates in accordance with the 2010 ruling.
The complicated court battle threatens to drag on between local fishermen, who blame damage to their shellfish and seaweed hauls on changes in the flow of the sea current after the floodgates were closed in 1997 to reclaim part of the Isahaya Bay, and farmers, who settled in the reclaimed area and oppose the opening of the gates, saying that incoming seawater would ruin their farmland.
The government says it’s bound by the two conflicting court decisions. But it should realize that it is the ¥250 billion government project that divided the fishermen and Saga Prefecture on one hand, and the farmers and Nagasaki Prefecture on the other. The standoff leaves the fishermen unhappy over their declining hauls and the farmers jittery about the future of the reclaimed land they’ve cultivated for years. Instead of relying on the courts to sort out the mess, the government needs to take the initiative and resolve the gridlock.
The project to reclaim part of the Isahaya Bay on the western tip of the Ariake Sea, which borders Nagasaki, Saga, Fukuoka and Kumamoto prefectures, was a typical public works project that never stops once it gets started. Originally based on a 1952 idea by Nagasaki Prefecture, which is short of good arable land, to create more farmland to meet the rising food demand at that time. The national government began the land reclamation work in 1989 — despite criticism that it would damage the local natural environment — and the floodgates were closed in 1997 to halt the inflow of seawater and farming began on the reclaimed land in 2008.
Fishermen from the neighboring Saga Prefecture blamed a sharp decline in their catch on the floodgates and took legal action to get the government to open them. The Nagasaki farmers, fearing damage to their farmland, also took their case to the court to stop the opening of the gates.
The government’s position is complicated. When the Fukuoka High Court in 2010 ordered the government to open the floodgates for five years to examine the causal relationship between the project and the fisheries damage, the Democratic Party of Japan government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan — a longtime foe of the Isahaya project — decided not to appeal, thereby finalizing the high court ruling and obliging the state to open the floodgates within a three-year grace period. But the Nagasaki District Court, acting on a call by the Nagasaki farmers, issued an injunction order not to open the floodgates in November 2013 — just before the deadline for opening the gates was to arrive. An appeal filed against the injunction by the government, now with the Liberal Democratic Party back in power, was turned down this month.
The extraordinary situation of the government failing to comply with a finalized court decision has gone on for about two years now. The government is paying ¥900,000 a day to the fishermen as a penalty for its failure to obey the Fukuoka court order to open the floodgates, with the total amount paid so far already topping ¥300 million. Should the government open the floodgates, however, the Nagasaki court injunction would force it to pay penalties to the farmers on the reclaimed land.
The Abe administration says it’s unable to take action on the floodgates because it’s tied up with the conflicting court decisions. Efforts to resolve the standoff through trilateral discussions with Nagasaki and Saga prefectures have made little progress. New farm minister Hiroshi Moriyama, installed in the October shake-up of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet, visited both prefectures earlier this month but reiterated that the government would like the Supreme Court to hand down a unified decision on the issue. But as the issue continues to be left hanging, both the frustration of the fishermen and the unease of the farmers remain unaddressed.
The government should get more serious about resolving the gridlock since it is a product of the controversial project that it pushed forward. It’s unlikely that a solution can be reached through the legal battles that would satisfy all of the parties concerned. It should work with local authorities in the area to find common ground to settle the dispute. One way forward might be to look for other means to probe the sources of damage on the local fisheries and explore ways to revive them. There are theories, for example, that the falling seaweed hauls in the Ariake Sea are not the result of the Isahaya Bay dike project alone but a combination of other factors that also impact the local environment. Inaction on the grounds of the legal quagmire will only leave all parties frustrated.
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