The Supreme Court decision last week to send a case concerning the government-run reclamation project in Isahaya Bay, Nagasaki Prefecture, back to the Fukuoka High Court leaves the judiciary divided over a dispute that has pitted local governments as well as farmers and fishermen in the area against each other for nearly two decades. The government should renew its efforts to settle the case with the fishermen and put an end to the dispute that has long divided the regional community.

Initiated in 1986 and completed in 2008, the ¥235 billion project reclaimed a tidal flat in Isahaya Bay in the western part of the Ariake Sea — a nearly landlocked body of water encircled by Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Saga and Fukuoka prefectures in Kyushu — by closing off the area with a 7-km dike. It created 670 hectares of farmland and a 2,600-hectare reservoir for agricultural use.

But the project has divided the fishermen operating in the Ariake Sea and the farmers cultivating the reclaimed land. The fishermen charge that the dike has caused changes in currents and other sea conditions that have reduced their catch, and are calling for opening the floodgates so research can identify the project’s impact. The farmers fear that doing so would damage their farmland. The national government, meanwhile, has been caught between conflicting court decisions: one ordering it to open the floodgates and the other ordering it to keep them closed.

The project was controversial from the very beginning when it came under criticism for being a typical big public works project that can’t be halted once it starts, but it went ahead despite concerns over the environmental impact. While the reclamation was aimed at preventing flooding in low-lying areas and creating more farmland — its roots lie in a 1950s plan by Nagasaki Prefecture to boost food output — by the time the project began the government had long embraced a policy of curbing rice production acreage across the country as the nation relied increasingly on food imports. Today, the farmers raise vegetables on the reclaimed land.

Nagasaki Prefecture, which was able to increase its farmland through the project, and other prefectures facing the Ariake Sea had differences over the project. It was launched before the enactment of the law on environmental assessment of large construction projects, and no legal rules had been established for building consensus on such projects and assessing their environmental impact. The conflicting interests of the fishermen and farmers led to a series of lawsuits in which courts handed down conflicting rulings.

In its 2010 ruling on a suit filed by fishermen, the Fukuoka High Court recognized the causal relationship between the project and the poor catches, and ordered the government to open the floodgates for five years to probe the project’s impact. However, another court ruling on a suit filed by the farmers subsequently ordered the government not to open the floodgates.

Faced with the divided decision by the judiciary, the government opted to keep the gates closed, saying that it was bound by conflicting legal obligations — and has paid the fishermen ¥1.2 billion in penalties for not complying with the 2010 ruling. It filed a suit in 2014 seeking to invalidate the 2010 court order on the grounds that the situation surrounding the project has changed due to the divided court rulings. Last year the Fukuoka High Court ruled in favor of the government to determine that the 2010 court order was no longer valid. But last week the Supreme Court overturned that decision and sent the case back to the high court.

There are no established theories as to whether the poor catch in the Ariake Sea is the result of the reclamation project. The government rejects the assertion, while some experts say such a link can only be determined by opening the gates and conducting research.

The government has taken steps to improve the environment in the Ariake Sea and develop fishing grounds through special legislation introduced in 2002, but the fisheries catch and the output of nori seaweed, a local speciality, remain unstable. There are views that a variety of factors, including a rise in sea temperature linked to climate change, affect the fisheries resources. Even as court battles continue over the project, efforts should be continued to research and improve the environment in the Ariake Sea.

An earlier attempt by the government to settle with the fishermen by creating a ¥10 billion fund to promote local fisheries — on condition that the Isahaya floodgates would remain shut — has failed. Although it’s expected to take some more time for the judiciary to reach a conclusion, the government needs to maintain its efforts to come to a settlement with the fishermen so that the bitter divisions in the regional community can heal.

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