Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Boats and Buoys

For those who have traveled to northeastern Japan, one familiar site
in normal times is decaying hulls of fleets of fishing boats, piles of
unused nylon netting on the beaches, and lone Styrofoam buoys strewn
across beaches. They seem to signal perhaps a less than vibrant
fishing culture. But some of the most enduring images after the great
wave have been of large boats that belie the degree to which coastal
dwellers depend upon their sea catch.

Japan has long had thriving coastal and pelagic fisheries. The country
itself averages more than 4.4 million metric tons of the world’s
catch, ranking number four in the world. Their fishing waters have
been greatly extended in the 21st century beyond the coastal waters of
Japan to the China Sea, the Indian and Atlantic oceans, the coasts of
South America and beyond.

It also has a vibrant fish culture at home. Sendai fish farmers raise
scallops and catch loads of squid off of the coast using bright lights
that lure the squid in only to be caught up by revolving fishhooks.
The squid is barbequed for a local dish called ika poppo! on a stick,
which I remember eating as a teenager on the Sendai beaches. While
the devastation to these local fisheries has yet to be fully
understood, surely these local fishermen have suffered great losses
not only to their boats, but to the poles and thick threads from which
aquacultural scallops hung.

One report, by Robert Wyre, suggests that fishing off the coast of
northern Japan accounts for about 20% of all seafood caught in Japan.
Japan’s northern fishing fleet was picked up by the tsunami and
scattered as far away as 10 kilometers from the beach. Wyre writes,
“Few, if any, of those ships will ever be re-floated. Most have
sustained too much damage, while others are too large and heavy to
move back to the water, and yet others have lost all their crew
members — with no hope of replacing them. In effect, Japan has lost
its entire North Pacific fleet in the disaster.”
Irreplaceable fish brokers, tremendously skilled at their trade, were
also killed.

That the fleet has been rendered derelict is not going to be welcome
news to the Japanese consumer who eats three times as much fish
protein as an American according to numbers from 2003. However, it will
probably give the North Pacific fish population some time to recover.
In 1990, according to NOAH observers, 74 Japanese vessels from Japan’s
northern Pacific fleet caught 7.9 million squid, which was the target.
Also, the bycatch was 82,000 blue sharks, 253,000 tune, 10,000
salmonids, 30,000 birds, 52 fur seals, 22 sea turtles, 141 porpoises,
and 914 dolphins (Richard Ellis, The Empty Ocean). Ecologists have
observed how in contaminated areas with low human impact the fauna
tend to recover. Much like the DMZ, or Chernobyl for that matter,
which have had a tremendous wildlife recovery with low human impact in
those areas, the northern Pacific may as well.

We all need to be concerned with conserving our ocean resources, and
we need to be concerned about honest fishing folks in Sendai. Japanese
fishing villages, which have traditionally been on the periphery
socially in Japan, will suffer tremendous losses.

We’re all in this together.