Hokkaido fishing villages face tough decision over nuclear disposal sites
A frosty wind was blowing in from the Sea of Japan at the Suttsu fishing port in Hokkaido in late November. There, catching anglerfish with a grim look on his face was 77-year-old fisherman Kyozo Kimura.
“The haul of fish has been decreasing to the point where we can’t even make ends meet. It has been tough,” said Kimura.
In 1977, Kimura, a native of the town of Matsumae, married into a family whose fishing business had been around for five generations since the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Longline fishing of trout prospered at the time, and he reminisced about the time when he got a new 29-ton ship, funded by his father-in-law, and was filled with hope that he could go out fishing anywhere with it.
But that dream did not last long.
An international regulation took effect later that year restricting fishermen to operating within 200 nautical miles of a nation’s shores.
Despite various efforts including changing to smaller ships aiming to catch Alaskan pink shrimp in coastal waters, hauls continued to drop. To make ends meet, Kimura ventured into scallop farming, learning the ropes from acquaintances.
Though the stable revenue from scallop farming has supported the family for years, the increase in sea temperatures in the past few years and other factors have led to the recurrent deaths of scallops, cutting hauls to a third of their heyday. The impact of coronavirus this year has also kept the price low amid declining demand.
Then, in August, local residents saw shocking headlines that Suttsu was considering applying for preliminary research into being a final disposal site for high-level radioactive waste produced from nuclear power plants.
Hearing the news, Kimura was upset, worrying that harmful rumors about radiation could potentially bring down the price of scallops. Local fishermen were split, and Kimura has heard about families arguing over the topic. Soon, people started avoiding it altogether.
In the 60 years or so since he graduated from high school, Kimura has worked as a fisherman, taking pride in his profession. But he is also aware of the importance of the town’s subsidies. For him to run a steady scallop farming business, any help, including municipal subsidies for fishing materials, makes a difference.
“I can’t go on by myself. If the lives of people won’t improve, we won’t have any more younger generations in the town,” said Kimura.
While showing some understanding of the need for a preliminary survey — for which Suttsu will receive government subsidies — he does not see the need for building a nuclear waste disposal site in the town.
On Nov. 17, the government launched preliminary surveys for the towns and villages of Suttsu and Kamoenai in Hokkaido, where herring fishing used to flourish.
According to the histories of the municipalities, wajin, or Japanese migrants to Hokkaido, made a hamlet and started fishing there in the Meiji Era. The industry became so lucrative at the time that there even remains a “herring palace” in Suttsu, which symbolizes the successful fishing business back then.
Although once a thriving industry, herring fishing began its steep decline around the late Meiji Era, and it was a shadow of its former self by the onset of the Showa Era (1926-1989).
After the end of World War II, fishermen began to seek ways to increase their catch, such as switching to pelagic fishing, but they were soon hit by the 200-nautical-mile fishing regulation. Though they have shifted to catching atka mackerel inshore and scallop farming as alternatives for survival, the hauls have been on the decline.
According to a fishery cooperative in Suttsu, there was about ¥2 billion worth of transactions in fiscal 1978, the oldest figures available on record. But transactions are now about ¥1 billion to ¥1.5 billion annually.
The Furuu fishery co-op also reports that there were 270 members in total in fiscal 2009 when three co-ops, Furuu, Kamoenai and Tomari, were merged together, but the number had shrunk to 126 in fiscal 2019.
Nobushige Miura, a 57 year-old fisherman in Kamoenai village, saw the industry dwindling first hand.
“In the offshore area, there aren’t many fish in the sea and prospects for fish farming are bleak. In the past decade, fishermen have been quitting one after the other saying they cannot hand down the business to their kids,” said Miura.
Miura is neither for nor against the village accepting the government’s preliminary survey. But he knows that the village’s future is bleak.
“If we don’t do anything, the village will disappear in the future,” he said.
Miura has been farming scallops for the past 30 years but recently he has seen the number of dead scallops on the rise, a trend also seen in Suttsu.
Miura’s family business started in the Edo Period (1603 to 1868), and is now in its fifth generation. Despite its long history, though, he realizes that the business will come to a halt in his generation due to the absence of successors. That is why Miura hopes all the more for the village to thrive, even for a short time.
Nihonkai Shokudo, a restaurant that sits along the national highway in Suttsu, serves local seafood throughout spring and summer. Owner Sumio Kawachi, 58, is a fourth-generation fisherman.
After graduating from Suttsu high school, he ran a construction business in Sapporo before becoming a fisherman when he was 37 years old due to an injury at his former workplace.
Amid the difficulties in the fishing business, he has been offering fishing classes to tourists in a bid to survive.
“Combining fishing with tourism is creating new business opportunities,” said Kawachi.
Kawachi’s mother was born into a family of fishermen in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, where a nuclear reprocessing plant is located. His mother used to tell him about the divide among fishermen over the construction of the facility.
Having visited Rokkasho multiple times since his childhood, he has seen the fishing industry decline despite the help of government subsidies.
Reflecting on his experience, his hope is for everyone to think twice about the potential consequences of constructing a nuclear disposal site.
“I am fishing in a sea that I have succeeded from my ancestors. Will we be able to hand down the sea to future generations given the preliminary research for the nuclear disposal site?”
Famous "Kotobuki Oysters" and shirasu (whitebait) are special products of Suttsu, a town located in the Central Hokkaido Shiribeshi region. Fisheries have started harvesting and shipping them for t...