SEAFOODNEWS.COM [Asahi Shimbun Company] By TAKAAKI YORIMITSU - June 15, 2015
Forty years have passed since Yukihiko Takamatsu caught his first tuna, but he recalls the event like it was yesterday.
It was 1975, and Takamatsu was 20 years old when he hooked it, his legs shaking as the fish took off with 100 meters of line.
To Takamatsu's mind, even now, that first tuna was huge.
It weighed 70 kilograms. Since then, he has landed tuna in the 300-kg class.
"Tuna is special," he said. "It has a different sense of presence. Like drugs, once you become attached to tuna you cannot stop. Even small tuna put up an interesting fight. Why? Because it's a tuna."
Now 59, Takamatsu works as a fisherman in Yagishiri, one of two islands off the coast of Haboro, Hokkaido, facing the Sea of Japan. The other island is Teuri.
In summer, the Tsushima warm current carries bluefin tuna to the waters off Yagishiri. That is when Takamatsu gets to work, taking his ship out to sea for a fishing season that lasts until mid-October. In autumn, the waters become rougher, but he still takes out his 4.9-ton boat for four to five hours to reach waters where the tuna can be found.
Takamatsu normally leaves port at about 11 p.m. and fishes from dawn until dusk. He returns to his home port late at night.
Takamatsu said the tuna catch began declining from the early 1990s.
"The last good year was 1993," he said.
The fish became even more scarce from 2000 and beyond.
To Takamatsu's knowledge, the last time tuna weighing more than 100 kg was caught in the Sea of Japan off Hokkaido was 2000 when two were hauled in.
While the fishing season comes to an end in Hokkaido in late January, it is only entering its prime in Ikinoshima island off Nagasaki Prefecture in Kyushu.
Minoru Nakamura, 47, is a fisherman in Katsumoto, a town on the northern edge of the island. In the past, tuna could be caught until March and they fetched good prices.
"At that time of year, there are few tuna in other parts of Japan," he said. "A 110-kg fish could be sold for about 4 million yen ($33,000)."
In 2005, 114 tuna weighing at least 100 kg were caught in Katsumoto alone between January and March. However, the numbers dropped sharply thereafter. In 2011, only seven were caught. While the numbers recovered somewhat to 24 in 2013 and 51 in 2014, it fell back to 10 in 2015.
The money rolled in when the fish were plentiful, but an empty catch meant zero income. With fuel costs running at between 200,000 yen and 300,000 yen ($1,650 and $2,500) a month, a fisherman faced bankruptcy if they did not catch any tuna.
Early 2014 brought Takamatsu and Nakamura together.
That year, Takamatsu heard that fishermen in Ikinoshima had formed a group to preserve the traditional tuna fishing method of "ipponzuri," or hooking fish one at a time with a line and maybe a rod.
Takamatsu jumped on a plane bound for Nagasaki, feeling in his bones that he had to become involved.
The group established by 150 or so Katsumoto fishermen was called "Ikishi Maguro Shigen wo Kangaeru Kai" (Group thinking about tuna resources in Iki city).
The ipponzuri method involves catching fish with a single line. Some fishermen use a rod, while others use a hand-held line. Bait and lures are used to hook the fish.
Kazunari Ogata, 53, the secretary-general of the group, said, "Until a few years ago, tuna would spawn in the waters off Iki."
There are only two areas in the world where the spawning of Pacific bluefin tuna has been confirmed: the waters around the Nansei (southwestern) chain of islands, centered on Okinawa, and the Sea of Japan.
Spawning in the waters near Okinawa takes place between April and June, while spawning in the Sea of Japan occurs between July and August.
Waiting for the schools of tuna that swim to the Sea of Japan are convoys of purse seine fishing boats. A convoy is made up of about five boats, each with a different purpose. One may set the nets while others transport the caught fish. Nets more than 1,000 meters long are used to haul in the tuna. Because it is a costly fishing method, about half of the convoys that net schools of spawning tuna are operated by the subsidiaries of major fishing companies, such as Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd. and Maruha Nichiro Corp.
The convoys have agreed among themselves to limit catches between June and August to under 2,000 tons. In 2014, their total catch came to 1,984 tons.
According to the Fisheries Agency, purse seine fishing accounts for slightly more than half of all bluefin tuna caught by Japan. Over time, the catching of tuna during the spawning season has evolved from waters off the Sanriku coast along the Tohoku region to the western edge of the Sea of Japan. From about 2004, the spawning moved to the central Sea of Japan.
Iki fishermen began catching bluefin tuna from about 2000. Although there were many large fish, Iki fishermen had no idea how to catch the tuna.
Nakamura, who heads the Iki Kangaeru Kai, said, "We just tried whatever we thought would work."
When they finally were able to catch the tuna on a regular basis by using live bait, with the boats floating along the current and using rod and reel, the tuna simply dried up.
According to the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean, the total catch of adult Pacific bluefin tuna in 2012 was 26,000 tons, about 20 percent the level of 1960. With tuna resources declining, the purse seine fishing boats used during the spawning of bluefin tuna were viewed by Nakamura and his group as a major threat to their livelihood.
They formed their group as a means of raising awareness about the problems associated with tuna fishing.
After discussing the matter with Nakamura, Takamatsu also felt the urgency of the issue. He formed his own group after returning to Hokkaido and named it "Jizokutekina Maguroryo wo Kangaeru Kai" (Group thinking about sustainable tuna fishing). The inclusion of sustainable in the group name reflects Takamatsu's view of the issue.
During the months when he is not going after tuna, Takamatsu harvests octopus and sea urchins along the coast of Yagishiri island.
"Regardless of what is being fished, it is important to not place a load on resources," Takamatsu said. "We would not be able to survive if the resource disappeared."
He continues to go out fishing even as he hopes for the day when bluefin tuna will return to Yagishiri.
RESEARCHERS, BUREAUCRATS ALSO RAISE CONCERNS
In Yokohama, the 15th floor of a building near the waterfront is the home of the Fisheries Research Agency. Masanori Miyahara, the president, took on the post after serving as deputy director-general of the Fisheries Agency. He still concurrently holds the position as adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
Like the ipponzuri fishermen, Miyahara also became concerned about the use of purse seine fishing boats during the tuna spawning season.
He felt that another problem was that fishermen were taking tuna that were not yet even two years old.
According to Fisheries Agency statistics, 93 percent of the Pacific bluefin tuna caught were young tuna less than two years old.
Miyahara is especially concerned about young tuna, those about a year old and weighing only 3 kg or so that are being hauled in by the purse seine boats.
"From the late 1990s, the purse seine boats began installing powerful sonar that allowed the boats to accurately find schools of fish," Miyahara said. "The young fish caught were sold for next to nothing in the markets of Tokyo and the Kansai region."
Any limitations on the tuna catch would have to involve an international effort because the bluefin tuna swim great distances in the Pacific Ocean. While young fish not even a year old may be caught near Japan, purse seine fishing boats from South Korea may catch the fish after it survives its first year in the water. Even if the fish manages to live for two years, it will have swam to areas where Mexican fishing boats operate.
In September 2014, Miyahara served as chairman of the Northern Committee within the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which held an international meeting in Fukuoka. A proposal made by Japan which was approved by the committee involved catch restrictions on small fish. The agreement called for limiting the catch of fish under 30 kg to half the average catch for the years 2002 until 2004. The restrictions which began from January 2015 apply equally to purse seine fishing boats as well as individual fishermen working their own boats.
Bluefin tuna begin producing eggs when they reach 4 or 5 years of age. Adult tuna can live for more than 20 years.
Miyahara also led the effort by Japanese fishermen to place a limit of 2,000 tons on tuna caught during spawning season in the Sea of Japan. The reasoning for that restriction was that fish at least four years old also had to be protected in order to have any chance of increasing the overall quantity of tuna.
There are arguments over whether 2,000 tons is an appropriate cut-off point.
Hisashi Endo, a councilor at the Fisheries Agency, said, "Efforts must be made to not increase the annual catch of adult fish."
At the same time, Endo indicated further consideration would be given to managing the catch in the Sea of Japan during spawning season.
Miyahara also agreed that the catch limit should be lowered along with moving up the end of fishing season from the current end of August to the end of June.