Through the ups and downs of Japan's relations with the Soviet Union, boats flying the flag of the rising sun have breasted icy waves to fish in Soviet waters. Last week an 11th-hour compromise allowed these boats to go on fishing within the 200-mile limits now widely recognized as belonging to a coastal nation's economic zone.
Soviet and Japanese fishing vessels will be allowed a catch this year of 600,000 tons in each other's offshore waters, according to an agreement signed in Moscow Jan. 31.
But Moscow is making it increasingly clear that in the future, Soviet waters will be reserved for its own burgeoning fishing industry. The Japanese catch this year will be 100,000 tons less than last year.
Moscow also insists on obtaining reciprocal rights for its own boats within Japan's 200-mile zone. It has granted Japanese fishing vessels the right to put in at Nevelsk on the island of Sakhalin for rest and repairs, and demanded in exchange that its boats be given the same privilege at Yokohama.
Japan's fisheries agency was inclined to grant this privilege, though not at Yokohama. But police and Foreign Ministry officials, to say nothing of citizens of suggested host ports, objected -- on grounds widely accepted in the West -- that many Soviet fishing boats are elaborately equipped spy vessels.
So vociferous were the reactions that Japan was prepared to offer the Soviet Union 2.3 billion yen ($9 million) as a ```cooperation fee'' in lieu of granting port privileges. Moscow fueled Japanese suspicions by rejecting the offer and stating that unless Tokyo granted the privileges, it would reduce Japan's quota to zero. The Japanese finally gave in and chose Shiogama in northeastern Japan for Soviet fishing fleet port calls.
For many years the Soviet Union was prepared to give Japanese boats greater catches in its own waters than it demanded of the Japanese. This year, Moscow demanded strict reciprocity, even to the point that it was willing to accept a zero catch in Japanese waters if the Japanese similarly forewent fishing in Soviet waters.
It was the Japanese who first developed modern fishing in Soviet waters. But now Moscow is catching up, Japanese officials say, and is taking the attitude that fishing resources within its own 200-mile limit should be preserved for its own exploitation.
Japan's position is weak, for the Soviet Union does not catch anywhere near the amount of fish from Japanese waters that Japan takes from Soviet waters.
Soviet-Japanese fishing negotiations are an annual affair. But this year's talks were unusual, Japanese officials say, in the severity of the Soviet attitude and in the fact that, for the first time in eight years, Japan's Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries had to go personally to Moscow to reach a settlement.