"A fisherman's life these days is pretty thrilling," said the burly crewman in black rubber apron and long boots. His ship had just come back to Kushiro from 10 days of trawling for pollack in Soviet waters.
"Those Russians restrict our fishing areas so severely that it's almost like being cooped up in a small pond. You know that just outside that invisible line the waters are rich with fish," the fisherman continued.
"So, in the dead of night, with lights doused, we drift into the forbidden area. We let down our lines, trawl furiously, and then make all speed for the permitted area. If we're lucky, by the time the Soviet patrol boats see us, we are peacefully steaming around in the permitted area.So long as they don't actually catch us at it, there's no way they can tell a free pollack from a forbidden one."
The crewman was standing on shore as his ship's winch, mewing and screaming like a seagull, brought a slithering load of pollack up from the ship's hold into an open truck on the quayside.
Inevitably some fish spilled from the truck onto the quay. Using a hooked stick, the crewman flicked each spilled fish back into the truck. In between, out of earshot of his fellow crewmen aboard the ship, he chatted with an inquisitive journalist. "And mind you don't mention my ship's name," he cautioned. "We all do it, but no one likes to talk about it."
At the headquarters of the fishermen's union in downtown Kushiro, Teruo Nakai , secretary-general of the union, acknowledged that some ships violated Soviet restrictions, but said, "It's really the Soviet's fault."
"The United States and Canada set aside certain areas within their 200-mile limit as forbidden areas," he said. "We are allowed to fish anywhere else.
"But the Russians restrict everything except for tiny areas they allot as free areas. With so many of our ships crowded into these areas, obviously they are not going to catch even the quota they are allowed."
The advent of the 200-mile fishing zones four years ago has vastly changed the style of the 100-ton and 350-ton fishing boats home-ported in Kushiro, center of Japan's northern fishing fleet. These ships can go out for a couple of days to catch sardines, or for 10 days in Soviet waters, or for 60 to 70 days in Alaskan and Canadian waters.
"The days when we could go where we pleased and fish as we pleased are gone forever," Mr. Nakai said. "Of 195 Hokkaido trawlers, 34 had to go out of business.
"Nowadays, we have to pay to be allowed to fish. We get 1,100,000 tons a year from the American 200-mile zone. For that, we pay license fees running from 3 to 5 percent of the value of the catch. Some Americans, we hear, want to shut us out altogether by raising the license fee so steeply that it will no longer pay for us to keep fishing.
"As for the Russians, we paid them 4 billion yen [$17.4 million] this year to catch 42,500 tons of salmon and trout. But for the pollack, we pay nothing, as the Russians take 650,000 from our 200-mile zone and we take 750,00 tons from theirs. They love our sardines, we love their pollack.
"In Japan, sardines are turned into fertilizer. In the Soviet Union, they can sardines and eat them on bread. Too oily, I say! But pollack and sardines make a fair exchange. Unfortunately, with the Americans there doesn't seem to be anything they want from our waters."