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2021 Pacific saury catch in Japan's Iwate Pref. at record low amid national slump

People involved in the Ofunato Fish Market smile upon seeing the first catch of the season at the market in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, on Aug. 28, 2021. (Mainichi/Takuhide Nakao)

MORIOKA -- In 2021, northeast Japan's Iwate Prefecture recorded its worst Pacific saury haul since records began in 1989, in a result which comes amid poor catches of the fish becoming a serious issue nationwide.

    According to statistics released by a national saury fishing cooperative on Jan. 7, only 2,852 metric tons of the fish were caught in Iwate Prefecture in 2021. The poor haul is a serious concern for those involved in fisheries, because saury is considered one of the three major fish species on the prefecture's coast along with salmon and Japanese flying squid.

    Between 1989 and 2012, the prefecture's annual saury catches mostly hovered between 30,000 and 60,000 tons, according to the fisheries cooperative. Since 2008's record high catch of 62,835 tons, the volume has decreased, falling to below 10,000 tons from 2019. The 2021 catch was 62% lower than 2020's and only about 5% of peak year 2008's total volume. Broken down by fishing port, Ofunato -- which boasts Japan's second largest volume of landings -- took in the largest haul with 2,471 tons of saury (60% lower than 2020), followed by Kamaishi with 255 tons (down 69% from 2020) and Miyako at 126 tons (a 73% decrease from 2020).

    Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency explained the main causes behind the poor catches include the saury population's decline and that fishing grounds are getting farther and farther out because saury do not approach waters near Japan. This is believed to be due to factors including overfishing and rising temperatures in waters off of east Hokkaido. An agency representative commented, "While resources may increase if the environment improves, it's important to manage resources to keep broodstock alive."

    However, it is believed catches will take a long time to recover.

    "(Pacific saury) is a fish species that has a wide influence. It involves fishing operators, fish markets and fish processing businesses," said Takahiro Abe, who heads fisheries management at the Iwate Prefectural Government's fisheries promotion division. "The situation is very serious," he said.

    To respond to the poor haul of saury, the prefectural government launched an initiative in fiscal 2019 to let saury boats smaller than 20 tons catch Japanese sardine on a trial basis. Eleven boats are participating this fiscal year. Japanese sardine populations have been increasing in recent years, and the initiative has benefits such as allowing fishing operators to catch them inshore without going offshore, meaning vessels require less fuel.

    But the initiative is not a "quick remedy" because the unit price for sardines is low and catch limits are in place. Even so, some fishing operators say they want to shift from trial operation to full-scale operation, and there will need to be adjustments among operators in future.

    (Japanese original by Ikuko Ando, Morioka Bureau)

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