Innovative boat could buoy Japan's small fishermen

This new highly fuel efficient boat might just be a saving grace for Japan's fishing industry, as the price of fuel threatens to put small fishermen out of business.

The little green-and-white fishing boat skims over the water of Ogatsu Bay in Miyagi Prefecture, its engine purring softly. In the distance, nestled between forested hills, the dusty remains of Ogatsu village sit abandoned.

More than three quarters of the village’s 4,300 residents have left since the March earthquake and tsunami destroyed the school, town hall, fishing port, and most of the houses. Now a handful of Ogatsu’s 40 remaining fishermen stand on the boat’s bow, far more interested in their new acquisition than in the view across the cobalt water.

The boat runs entirely on electricity and was recently donated by its Ehime-based developer ITO Co. A second, slightly smaller blue-and-white version was donated by Tokyo-based Mitsuiwa Corporation. Just eight of the ITO boats are currently in trial use across Japan – and that puts Ogatsu’s fishermen at the cutting edge of low-carbon fishing technology. They say they hope to install solar panels to recharge the batteries so they won’t have to rely on electricity from coal or nuclear power plants.

“This boat is very quiet and clean. We wouldn’t be able to hear each other on my gas-powered boat,” says Ogatsu fisherman Yoichi Suenaga as he stands behind the wheel, dressed in a straw hat and a black t-shirt reading "I love Ogatsu." “But the battery only lasts four hours, and that’s not enough for a full day of work.”

The small, light boat is meant for tending shellfish and seaweed beds close to shore rather than for open-sea fishing. ITO president Kiyoshige Ito says that means a longer battery life isn’t really needed. He says the boats will go on sale next year and will likely cost slightly more than a standard gas model. Tests carried out three years ago showed that the electric boats reduce fuel costs by 84 percent compared with a similar gas-powered boat, Mr. Ito says.

With the price of fuel the major factor pushing small fishermen out of business in Japan, this might just be a saving grace for families.

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