Lure of money set to empty oceans

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Afriend of mine who lives in the picturesque port city of Otaru, western Hokkaido, is a fish-hunter. He loves to dive, and hunts for fish with a spear gun — seafood is his manna from heaven.

Visiting him for dinner recently, I was astonished by a creature on my plate that I had not encountered before — though that is not so difficult in a country with a seemingly greater range of seafood available for consumption than any other.

This creature was like a huge krill or shrimp, somewhat like the kind that I grew up in Britain calling a “prawn.” But what was most strange about it, were its front appendages, which were just like the arms of a preying mantis.

Some investigation revealed that this was Squilla oratoria, and its vernacular name is, not surprisingly, Japanese mantis shrimp (shako in Japanese). The search for that information led me to an interesting Web site (aquadb.nrifs.affrc.go.jp/~aquadb/index.html), which you might find a useful starting point for any quest for information about marine life.

Such a quest would be nothing if not timely, since marine matters have been much in the news of late. There has been the Japanese government admitting to having been overfishing southern bluefin tuna, and so having its annual quota cut in half for five years; Iceland commencing commercial whaling with the recent catch of an endangered 20-meter-long fin whale; and a Japanese Fisheries Agency report recommending halving the catch or imposing a ban on catching walleye pollack (suketo-dara in Japanese), fishing for which has been banned in the Bering Sea — where they are known as Alaska pollack — since 1993).

High mercury levels

In addition, there was news revealed in The Japan Times on Nov. 1 that the Taiji dolphin hunt in Wakayama Prefecture is taking animals with extremely high levels of mercury and providing them for sale to consumers; and BBC television also broadcast a prime-time news item on the fate of global fish stocks, citing evidence that the majority of commercial fishery stocks will be effectively extinct by the late 2040s.

So much news about the marine environment, and none of it good, points to an alarming shift in marine resources from being seemingly inexhaustible, to almost gone. How is it then that people in Japan can consume marine products as if they will last forever? That is something I have pondered long and hard, and I wonder whether a simple “wheel” analogy isn’t a reasonable explanation — but more of that later.

My first exposure to a frenetic fishery came one winter’s night on the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido’s far northeast. I recall my first visit there to the town of Rausu; it must have been sometime in 1982 or 1983. It was after dark, snow was lashing down, and Rausu harbor was ablaze with lights. Gangs of workers clad in oilskins were hunkered down on the rear decks of each of dozens of fishing boats, deftly flicking fish from heaps of nets with hand hooks as the snow cascaded around them. Crates of fish — walleye pollack — were being tossed onto conveyor belts, and rows of trucks were being loaded to take the catch far to the south out of town.

Over the years, I watched Rausu boom: new roads with bigger snow tunnels, new houses (ever larger) and new harbor walls were all constructed on the back of that endless marine cornucopia.

Meanwhile, newer and newer boats appeared, and I saw the fleet leaving harbor before dawn each day (I was there to watch Steller’s eagles) like a flickering constellation of lights on the dark and icy waters of the channel separating Hokkaido from Kunashiri Island.

The fleet worked pretty much round-the-clock. Gangs of seasonal workers helped unload up to three catches a day, and the fishing boats came back to harbor so ladened down with their catches that they looked likely to sink.