Japan’s coastal tradition

Fishermen in much of the world are expressing concern about catch shares. Under some regimes, these can inflate the fishing privilege, lead to corporate concentration and even foreign ownership of the fishing resource. Japan, one of the largest seafood-consuming nations in the world, may provide a model to fishermen who want to maintain the role of independent owner-operator.

Ananya Surangpimol and Alan Haig-Brown

The complex coastal fisheries co-management structure in Japan and changes through centuries are widely documented. The pivotal role of fishery cooperatives in managing fishing rights, territory, gear and services remains entrenched – a fact we observed in our visits to a number of ports in Wakayama Prefecture in December 2015.

Makino and Mitsutaku reported in 2011 that over 186,000 fishermen, 87% of the total in Japan, are coastal fishermen. The Zengyouren (National Federation) confirmed 976 active coastal organizations nationwide in 2013. The Wakayama cooperatives are comparatively small but revealed interesting aspects of fisherman-centred local management.

The national government limits its role in setting total allowable catch (TAC) by species, gear type and geographical location. The TAC is left for the fishermen’s cooperatives to decide and portion out among their members. It then keeps track of the catches through its own auction or sales system. Qualifications for membership in a cooperative vary but always require ties to the community.

Set on a magnificent white sand beach with its own hot springs, Shirahama is a favourite tourist destination for urban Japanese. Located on a rugged outcrop, it is served by the Wakayama Southern Fisheries Cooperative. This group with about a hundred members is based in Shirahama, but includes boats from Susami, Hidaka, Katsuura and Tanabe ports.

Port manager Suzuki Kiyoshi explained that day that strong winds had kept the fleets in port, so there was no auction. On a typical day the smaller longliners would be setting gear in 20 to 30 metre depths for various species. Gear is primarily pulled by hand. Some larger tuna boats also belong to the cooperative. Proximity to an important tourist destination allows the group to open a retail outlet with an extensive range from live lobsters to dried, frozen and pickled products.

Northwest of Shirahama is the small port of Mio, often known as the Canadian or American village due to the large number of fishermen who immigrated to the Pacific Northwest in the early 20th century. The high point above the village houses a small museum chronicling the history of overseas family members. A nearby lookout point directs the viewer’s eyes toward North America.

Today, about 28 fishermen working 20 boats belong to the Mio Fishermen’s Cooperative. The co-op members use long-lines to catch tachiuo (scabbard fish) and sawara (spanish mackerel). In early December, fishermen were loading gillnets for lobster onto small open eight-metre boats.

The Mio Co-op set a 10,000kg TAC for lobster for the September to December season. The lobsters are harvested with tangle nets. On a concrete apron of the snug harbour, a warehouse contained a number of circulating tanks with live lobsters awaiting the arrival of buyers. Nearby an ice plant stood ready to supply the co-op’s fleet of boats. Several larger 20-metre boats were waiting to be rigged for long-lining and/or tuna trolling.

Yoshida Hideto, whose family has lived in and fished out of Mio for several generations, explained that to qualify for membership in the co-op a fisherman must have lived in the village for at least three years. Once accepted, he pays a membership fee of 100,000 yen (approx €785). The fisherman supplies his own boat but uses the co-op nets and facilities with costs based on a percentage of the sale of his catch.

About 20 kilometres up the coast from Mio, on a road that winds between mountain and sea, is the larger fishing port of Arida. Here 600 members own and fish 120 bottom trawlers, 100 midwater trawlers and 100 hook and line boats. Some boats are in multiple ownership.

The majority of the 100 mid-water trawlers had arrived back in port and were putting their catches through the co-op’s auction as we called and in mid-afternoon the auction pace was hectic with representatives of each boat pushing two-wheeled carts with boxes of small lots of fish of a variety of species. Mostly women, the cart people lined up on the pier side of the auction house.

Membership in the Arida Minoshima Cooperative is restricted to fishermen who have lived in the area for over two years. Fees, paid by fishermen, are based on 2% of the auction price. Members can choose different gear types but once chosen must stay with that for at least one year. There is no limit on the volume that a vessel may catch but it must take one harbour-day after two days of fishing. There are classes of vessels that are designated by colour. The yellow 21 metre and over midwater trawlers seemed to dominate. These are mostly fibreglass although at least two aluminium versions were seen. The third class boats are less than 21 metres and painted green. Both classes have horsepower restrictions and are typically manned by two or three crew. The price of boats is increasing. Skipper Kojima, who is handing his boat over to his son, explained that in 2000, a 21 metre fibreglass boat ready to fish would cost 23 million yen but now a similar vessel could cost as much as 40 million.

Often, it is the owner’s wife who meets the boats on their daily return for the auction that runs from 2:00 PM to about 5:00 PM. One of the green boats was delivering eso, desirable for making kamaboko (fish paste), barracuda, scabbard fish and small amounts of other species. The fisherman’s wife wheeled the fish, sorted by species, into the auction where a dozen buyers marked their bids on wooden sticks that also had their names. These were then thrust through a slot in the adjoining office where the highest bid was announced as the chits were returned. The buyer could then make payment and pick up his receipt. The fish were delivered to the buyer’s space in a nearby building. In three hours, the auction handled over 500 boxes of fish with a total weight of about one tonne.

We were told that in recent years an increasing percentage of the catch is purchased on behalf of Korean buyers and delivered fresh by trucks that travel by ferry to Busan. This means that boats that go out to the fishing grounds at 3:00 AM, will have their catches through the auction by 5:00 PM at the latest. These fish can then be in a Korean market within two days. Other fish are frozen for export to China. Only about 20% of the catch goes to the domestic market in Arida.

The Japanese system of management has very deep historic roots and is maintained in a society where the community takes precedence over the individual. However, it illustrates for other nations, that fishermen can self-regulate within a federal structure that provides the science and direction.