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Can big business save Japan's fishing industry?

Japan's fishing industry may be about to undergo a complete transformation. One local government is proposing opening coastal waters to big-business investors in what he says is an effort to save the industry.

By Winifred BirdCorrespondent / November 9, 2011

Surviving fishing boats sit at anchor in a harbor in the Josanhama district, Japan, on June 18, after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed coastal areas. Fishermen who had enough warning took their boats away from shore to ride out the tidal wave. Most of the fishing industry in the area was destroyed.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Tokohu, Japan

When a 9.0 earthquake struck northern Japan in March, Yukihiro Osawa felt prepared. Like most fishermen in his village on Miyagi Prefecture’s Oshika Peninsula, he docked two of his boats on a nearby island where they would be sheltered from the coming tsunami.  He then hurried to shelter, and looked out to sea.

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“I could see the tsunami over the top of the island, and I said to myself, this is gonna be a bad one,” says Mr. Osawa.

He was right. When the waters calmed, his two boats were all that remained of his fishing and aquaculture business that had previously employed about 15 people. Replacing what he lost will cost 40 to 50 million yen, nearly $600,000 dollars, he estimates. He’s determined to rebuild his business by next year, but a recent proposal by the local government in an effort to save the industry as a whole could hurt his business and change the industry altogether in the process.

Miyagi Governor Yoshihiro Murai says he doesn't think older, smaller-scale fishermen will be able to recover even with government help. So, in what he says is an effort to salvage the billion dollar industry, he has proposed opening coastal waters – long restricted to independent fishermen belonging to Fisheries Cooperative Associations – to big-business investors.

The proposal has drawn harsh criticism from the fishing cooperatives who say it's just a move to pander to big business and fear they will be pushed out of the market. And many academics argue that the proposed system would expose coastal communities and ecosystems to exploitation and abandonment.

“We don’t need this,” says Osawa, who fears large companies would easily undersell him.

Under fisheries law enacted in 1948 and amended in the 60s, cooperatives have preferential access to coastal fishing rights, which they distribute to their members. Nearly all commercial fishermen belong to a cooperative in Japan. Outside investors can get involved by forming partnerships with fishermen or by claiming leftover fishing rights.

Mr. Murai has petitioned the central government to designate a special fishing zone where companies would have the same access to fishing licenses as cooperatives.

Faltering fishing cooperatives

A little less than half of Japan's roughly $3 billion in annual food exports comes from seafood. But even before the tsunami struck, cooperatives nationwide were plagued by shrinking membership, financial troubles, and declining fish stocks.

Masahiro Yamao, a fisheries expert at Hiroshima University’s Graduate School of Biosphere Science, says the Miyagi proposal is a test case for a larger restructuring of the struggling fishing industry. 

Miyagi officials say investment from outside businesses is crucial now because the extent of the damage is so extreme.  Norimitsu Kobayashi, technical director of the Miyagi Fisheries Recovery Department, has the numbers to support the government’s claims. Ninety percent of boats were destroyed in the tsunami, all 142 fishing ports were damaged, there was $25 million in damages to aquaculture, and $2.5 billion to processing facilities.

According to an April United Nations report, "Considering that agriculture and fisheries are one of the biggest industries in Tohoku Region, reconstruction of these sectors ... will be critical for the reconstruction of livelihoods."

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