The Yomiuri Shimbun
“Please punch your time card when you leave the office,” Kazuhiko Endo told 11 relatively young fishermen belonging to a fishery cooperative in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, on Feb. 23.
Endo is head of the cooperative, located in an area near Shizukawa fishing port, where the ground sank by up to one meter following the Great East Japan Earthquake last March. The land has not been restored even though almost one year has passed since the disaster.
Members of the cooperative punched their time cards and returned home to temporary housing units after completing the first shipment of wakame seaweed since the cooperative was established last autumn.
The fishermen, aged from 19 to 50, had belonged to the Shizukawa branch office of the Miyagi prefectural federation of fisheries cooperative associations. They lost their homes and fishing boats in the quake-triggered tsunami.
The idea of shifting from family-run businesses to incorporation arose as a way to reduce the cost of cultivating wakame and scallops and improve work efficiency.
They made contributions ranging from 500,000 yen to 2 million yen to set up the cooperative, which also relies on subsidies for fishing boats, and cultivation and other equipment.
The fishermen devised their own rules, such as consulting each other when purchasing equipment and reporting to the cooperative when they consumed wakame at home.
Like the members of the Minami-Sanriku cooperative, other fishermen in areas affected by the March disaster also are thinking about incorporating, as they have been forced to make a fresh start.
Even before the disaster, fisheries in the Tohoku region’s Sanriku area faced serious problems.
According to a 2008 survey, only 27 percent of fishermen in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures were under 50. Also, the number of fishermen has declined by about 10 percent compared to five years ago.
On top of this, the disaster devastated 263 fishing ports and many seafood processing complexes in the three prefectures.
According to a post-disaster survey by the Miyagi prefectural federation of fisheries cooperative associations, 30 percent of fishermen said they wanted to quit their current occupation.
The Otsuchi fishery cooperative association in Iwate Prefecture decided to dissolve in January with liabilities exceeding assets by about 1.1 billion yen.
The delay in restoring the sunken ground along the coast is preventing seafood processing operators from resuming business.
Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai believes the situation cannot be resolved only through restoring the area to its pre-disaster condition. He has called for the establishment of a “special reconstruction zone for fisheries” designed to encourage the private sector to enter the fish culture business, which has been monopolized by fisheries cooperative associations.
Citing recent changes in the farming sector through participation of the private sector, such as the expansion and consolidation of farming businesses, Murai called on the private sector to participate in the fisheries sector.
To encourage this, Murai referred to production of bell peppers in his prefecture, which developed into the largest in the country thanks to the entry of trading firms and other businesses.
However, a senior member of a conventional fisheries cooperative association opposed Murai’s proposal. “The situation surrounding fisheries is different from agriculture. We don’t need [the participation of] companies.”
In connection with the fishery cooperative led by Endo in Minami-Sanriku, some people were incensed, saying, “Why did they create a second fishery cooperative?” and “Their move affects other fishermen.”
But fishermen in their 40s are not slow in moving in the new direction.
Yoshiteru Kimura, 41, of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, visited a large-scale sushi restaurant chain and trading companies in Tokyo at the end of last year to seek new markets.
“Previously, we only thought about catching a lot of fish, irrespective of their prices. We didn’t see the faces of consumers,” Kimura said.
The March disaster changes Kimura’s viewpoint. “From now on, we’d like to tell [consumers] about the fish we catch and where they come from,” he said.
Toshio Katsukawa, an associate professor in Mie University and an expert in fisheries in the Sanriku area, said the region should overhaul the fisheries business to focus more on how to sell products than how to catch fish.
Katsukawa said, “It’s necessary for both fishermen and people involved in seafood processing and distribution businesses to cooperate and to make efforts to raise the value of the products.”
He is hopeful of the future of the business. “If the environment changes to allow young fishermen to enter new businesses by getting rid of vested interests, it’ll be possible for them to earn a reasonable living in the fisheries business.”