Unit 06-B: Challenges for the Revitalization of Japan’s Fishing Industry: A Legal Perspective ―The cases of Rishiri and Rebun Islands

Mari Koyano
Graduate School of Law, the Advanced Institute for Law and Politics Globalisation, Hokkaido University


 Hokkaido is the cornerstone of Japan’s fishing industry. In 2014, production in Hokkaido’s marine fishing and aquaculture industries, in terms of both quantity and value, was the highest of any of the nation’s prefectures (Hokkaido Government, 2016). In addition to being one of Hokkaido’s key industries, the fishing industry also provides the economic foundation for communities in the prefecture’s coastal areas and on its offshore islands. However, like other areas of Japan, Hokkaido faces two problems: A decline in overall production and in catches of key species (walleye pollock, Pacific saury, chum salmon, etc.), and a decline in the number of fishing industry workers and the general aging of the population (Hokkaido Government, 2016). These problems represent a threat to the sustainability of Hokkaido’s fishing industry and of the prefecture’s regional communities.
 Taking the cases of Hokkaido’s Rishiri and Rebun Islands as examples, this paper will look at the problem of declining catches mentioned above, with consideration of the legislative and policy perspective. The communities of both islands have historically been extremely reliant on the fishing industry, and the issues of declining catches and aging populations are making themselves felt. In response, the town communities on the islands have mounted independent initiatives to address the problem of declining resources, making them ideal to consider as case studies. The labor force and population issues affecting both islands will not be discussed in this paper due to limitations of space, while the town communities present good precedents for tackling the problems.

1. The Fishing Industries of Rishiri and Rebun Islands

 Rishiri and Rebun Islands are located in the Sea of Japan northwest of Hokkaido. The towns of Rishirifuji and Rishiri are located on Rishiri Island, and the town of Rebun is located on Rebun Island. (Figure 1)

 The ocean surrounding Rishiri and Rebun Islands offers particularly abundant fishing grounds. The islands lie close to the La Perouse Strait, and are affected by both the intermingling of the cold waters of the Liman Current and the warm waters of the Tsushima Current and drift ice from the Sea of Okhotsk. The waters around the islands were previously rich in herring, and fishing remains the main industry in the islands’ towns. This is followed by tourism, but the number of tourists visiting the islands has halved in the past 12 years. Depopulation is severe on the islands, with the populations having declined dramatically since 1955, when there was a poor herring catch. More than 30% of the population of the islands is aged over 65.
 With the exception of processing of the catch by the Fisheries Cooperative Association in Funadomari, in Rebun Town, the fishing industries of both islands have traditionally centered on marine fishing. Three types of fishing are practiced on the islands: In-shore harvesting of sea urchin, abalone, etc.; offshore fishing; and marine aquaculture. Almost all fisheries operators on the islands are engaged in in-shore harvesting. There is also considerable offshore fishing activity on Rebun Island.
 The main species taken in in-shore harvesting operations are Ezo-bafun uni (Strongylocentrotus intermedius, a species of sea urchin), Kita-murasaki uni (Strongylocentrotus nudus, a species of sea urchin), wild kombu, sea cucumber, abalone, and wakame. The produce is harvested under a Class 1 common fishery right by members of the Fisheries Cooperative Associations, under the management of the Associations. A wide variety of fish and shellfish are caught in offshore fishing operations. Japanese atka mackerel, octopus, and sea cucumbers are caught by fishermen in all three towns. Fishermen in Rishirifuji also catch flounder, sand eels, horsehair crabs, red king crabs, and salmon. Fisheries operators in Rebun also catch Pacific cod and Japanese sand eels. A variety of legal foundations regulate the species that are fished and the fishing methods employed 1). Marine aquaculture operations harvest cultivated kombu. This is harvested under a special demarcated fishery right under the management of the Fisheries Cooperative Associations. Figure 2 shows the volume and value of production for the main species caught or harvested.

 1)For the respective legal foundations that govern the species caught and the fishing methods employed, see the separate table.


 In recent years, catches of the main species, including Ezo-bafun uni (in in-shore harvesting operations), Japanese atka mackerel and Pacific cod (in off-shore fishing operations), have been declining (Figure 3). While the reasons for this are not clear, the underlying factors may include increased water temperature, change in currents, fishing pressure, and a decline in the number of fisheries workers.

 There are three Fisheries Cooperative Associations on the islands: The Rishiri Fisheries Cooperative (formed in an amalgamation of four Fisheries Cooperative Associations (Oshidomari, Oniwaki, Kutsugata, and Senposhi) in 2008) is based on Rishiri Island, and the Kafuka and Funadomari Fisheries Cooperatives are based on Rebun Island. As of January 2016, the Rishiri Fisheries Cooperative had 315 members, the Kafuka Fisheries Cooperative Association had 150 members, and the Funadomari Fisheries Cooperative Association had 210 members. Membership numbers for each cooperative association continue to decline. Most cooperative members are in their 40s and 50s, and the average age of members is around 65. The Cooperative Associations are of differing economic scale. According to 2013 data, both amount of sales and balance of savings per member are highest for the Funadomari Fisheries Cooperative Association, with figures twice those for the Rishiri Fisheries Cooperative Association (Hokkaido Government Souya General Subprefectural Bureau (2015)).

2. Japanese Atka Mackerel and Pacific Cod: Diminishing Catches and Concerns over Depletion of Resources

 Catches of Japanese atka mackerel and Pacific cod, two of the main species taken by the offshore fishing industry of the islands, have been declining for the past several years (Figure 3). In addition, northern Hokkaido stock of Japanese Atka Mackerel and Sea of Japan stock of Pacific cod are low, and resources are in decline (Hokkaido Government, 2016). As indicated above, a number of causes of this phenomenon can be considered. Whatever the cause, appropriate resource management based on scientific findings will be essential to maintaining the catch into the future. In part because of the effect of declining production in increasing the unit price of the catch, the total value of production for the islands in the most recent recorded year was higher than the previous year, but, as exemplified by the cases of Pacific herring and walleye pollock, drastic decline in resources may make it difficult to maintain a catch at all, leaving the local fishing industry with nothing.
 Northern Hokkaido stock of Japanese atka mackerel is particularly low, and for a three-year period from 2012, fisheries operators engaged in voluntary resource management efforts in relation to these fish, which saw them reducing their catch volume or their fishing effort by 30%. However, this did not lead to a recovery of Japanese atka mackerel stocks, and the measures are therefore being continued for another three years (Hokkaido Government, 2016). Other than the temporary measures discussed above, the only resource management measures being applied are voluntary restrictions on the minimum size of each fish caught and the annual fishing period, put into effect by each of the Fisheries Cooperative Associations.
 No total allowable catch (TAC) is set for either Japanese atka mackerel or Pacific cod under the Act on Preservation and Control of Living Marine Resources. The necessity for adding both species to the list of resources subject to total allowable catch restrictions has been examined at the government level (Expert Panel on the TAC System, Etc., Apr-Dec, 2008). Ultimately, the species were not added to the list due to a lack of scientific evidence urging the application of TAC restrictions, and a failure to demonstrate that stocks were diminishing (Expert Panel on the TAC System, Etc., 2008). However, as indicated above, northern Hokkaido stock of Japanese Atka Mackerel and Sea of Japan stock of Pacific cod did in fact later diminish, and the abovementioned voluntary resource management measures failed to bear fruit. Concerns have also been raised regarding high-volume trawl-net fishing of mackerel by Wakkanai offshore trawling operators in the waters off the islands. Considering the mistakes made in the cases of Pacific herring and walleye pollock in the waters of the Sea of Japan off Hokkaido, it will be necessary to vigorously promote efforts to develop scientific methods of estimating the volume of fisheries resources and making future projections (both of which are currently difficult), and re-examine the feasibility of regulating catch sizes via effective standards based on TAC restrictions. It should be noted that the Expert Panel on the TAC System stated that further studies should be conducted in order to accumulate scientific data on the species mentioned above, and that the evidence should be re-examined to consider whether TAC restrictions should be applied to these and other species, taking into consideration the specific characteristics of the resources in question (Expert Panel on the TAC System, Etc., Apr-Dec, 2008).

3.Ezo-bafun Uni: Diminishing Catches and Efforts to Cultivate the Species and Restock Supplies

 Catches of Ezo-bafun uni have recently displayed a declining tendency (Figure 3). No scientific data concerning the current status of resources is available, and the cause of their decline is also unclear. Local fisheries operators have indicated that Kita-murasaki uni, a hardier species inhabiting comparatively deep waters, have begun breeding in the shallows that are the habitat of the Ezo-bafun uni, and the latter are disappearing. It has also been suggested that the isolation of the habitats of the two species has been disrupted by factors including increased water temperature and the artificial transplantation of the Kita-murasaki uni to the shallows in order to boost their numbers. Whatever the cause, there is concern over the status of sea urchin resources. It would therefore be desirable to conduct surveys, including visual surveys, of the volume of sea urchin resources, and efforts to understand sea urchin ecology.
 The minimum size of sea urchins able to be harvested is set by the Regulation for Fisheries Coordination in Hokkaido (Article 35). The Fisheries Cooperative Associations of both islands have also voluntarily established even more rigorous restrictions on the minimum size for catch. In addition, while they are not based on scientific data, targets for the total catch volume of sea urchin are stated in the annual business plans of each of the Fisheries Cooperative Associations.
 For many years the Rishiri Town budget, approximately 36 million yen per year, has made funds available for the cultivation of Ezo-bafun uni and the restocking of supplies in the waters around the island. Over the course of 21 years, the Rishiri Island Sea Urchin Seed Production Center has produced approximately five million sea urchin seeds per year. 600,000 of these seeds are sold to other organizations, such as the Rishiri Fisheries Cooperative Oshidomari Main office and the Wakkanai Fisherman’s Cooperative Association, and the remainder of the cultivated juvenile sea urchins are released in the waters off the town. Some question the effectiveness of this sea urchin cultivation project in the absence of clear limits on the urchin catch volume. However, a survey conducted eight years ago found that approximately 10% of Ezo-bafun uni caught by local fisheries operators had developed from the juveniles released by this project, indicating that outcomes are being achieved to a certain degree. In accordance with the government’s Basic Principles for Japanese Marine Stock Enhancement, Hokkaido is currently formulating and implementing the 7th Basic Plan for Stock Enhancement and Farming Fishery (2015-2019), based on Article 6 of the Basic Principles, Hokkaido Fisheries and Fishing Villages Promotion Ordinance. In addition to establishing the species subject to aquaculture efforts, including Ezo-bafun uni, and setting numerical targets for the cultivation of seeds and the release of juveniles, this plan seeks to promote aquaculture suited to the characteristics of the oceans around Hokkaido, including the Sea of Japan, the Pacific, and the Sea of Okhotsk (Hokkaido Government, 2016). The aquaculture project being conducted in Rishiri Town is one example of these initiatives. The town is bearing a considerable financial burden, but the initiative is one which will attract attention as a measure to support the future of Rishiri Island’s fishing industry.

4. Sea Cucumber: Realization of a Stable Production Volume and Attempts to expand Production through Seed Cultivation and the Release of Juveniles

 About 10 years ago, the volume of production of sea cucumbers began to increase on both Rishiri and Rebun Islands, and has since become comparatively stable (Figure 3). The majority of these sea cucumbers are exported to China. Hokkaido sea cucumbers are highly prized as a luxury ingredient in Chinese dishes. Demand has increased with the growth of the Chinese economy, and the price of sea cucumbers has risen significantly. Against this background, in Rishiri Town the Rishiri Island Sea Urchin Seed Production Center has commenced a sea cucumber seed cultivation and juvenile release project, and is conducting tests in the island’s bays towards increasing the stock of sea cucumbers. This initiative is also being conducted in Rishirifuji Town, in cooperation with the Fisheries Guidance Office. Tests of the cultivation of sea cucumber seeds have also recently been commenced in Rebun Town. These initiatives will support the advancement of the Hokkaido aquaculture industry discussed above. Using its Fisheries Experimental Stations, Hokkaido is currently working to identify the effects of release of the cultivated resources, develop nutritional media to assist in the cultivation of the seeds, and develop low-cost and high-efficiency cultivation techniques (Hokkaido Government, 2016).
 Like sea urchins, the minimum size of sea cucumbers able to be harvested and the annual harvesting period are regulated by the Regulation for Fisheries Coordination in Hokkaido and the Fisheries Cooperative Associations. There are no total allowable catch limits for sea cucumbers. Sea cucumber aquaculture is progressing in the islands, but as in the case of sea urchins, there is some concern over unrestricted “Olympic-style” harvesting from the perspective of sustainability. There may be room for examination of the pros and cons of introducing some form of control over the harvest volume in parallel with the advancement of the aquaculture industry.

5. Conclusion

 The fisheries industries of Rishiri and Rebun Islands originated with the modern fishing of Pacific herring. Decline in the herring catch prompted fisheries operators to turn to other species, including Japanese atka mackerel and Pacific cod, and these species have been fished up to the present day. Recently, however, the production volumes of these main species, in addition to Ezo-bafun uni, have been in decline. It is not certain that it will be possible to shift the focus to different species in the future, as it was in the past. Doubts must exist in this respect, given the limited range of species available.
 The unit price of the catch will increase if production volumes decline. This may produce economic benefits for local fisheries operators and Fisheries Cooperative Associations in the short-term. As a result, there may be little incentive to engage in resource management from the medium-to long-term perspectives. However, an increase in the unit price of the catch could also threaten marine product processing businesses, rendering the goal of transforming the fishing industry into a “sextiary” industry 2), a more distant one. At the same time, the possibility that fisheries resources will continue to decline and that as a result the fishing industry itself will face a crisis in the medium- to long-term cannot be denied.
 In addition, with the aging of the fishing population there may be little momentum in the local community towards the transformation of the fishing industry into one that manages resources with a view to the long-term future. If there was a large number of young fisheries workers, it would be a matter of vital importance for fishing communities to realize a fishing industry that would be sustainable far into the future. With few young workers taking their place in the industry, the sense of urgency in relation to the future becomes comparatively less strong. In this sense, the issue of appropriate resource management is closely related to the securing and development of young fisheries workers. The two problems discussed at the outset of this paper are therefore two sides of the same coin. Given this, the enhancement of fisheries resource management beyond the existing voluntary measures based on objective and scientific data and the realization of a fishing industry that is sustainable from medium- to long-term perspectives would have the potential to work positively in increasing the numbers of young fisheries workers. For local communities that depend on the fishing industry, this may therefore represent a means of halting depopulation and promoting sustainable development.
 The cases of Rishiri Island and Rebun Island give us much to consider. In order to realize sustainable fisheries and local communities, it may be necessary to take a broader perspective in our consideration of legislation and the formulation of policy related to the management of resources, while ensuring that we remain grounded in the actual experience of the communities themselves.

 2)A "sextiary" industry means the diversification of primary producers into processing and distribution, a strategy being pursued by the Japanese government in order to halt
    decline in primary industries.


* The author wishes to express her sincere gratitude to all the individuals concerned at the Center for Research and Promotion of Japanese Islands, the Rishirifuji, Rishiri, and Rebun Town administrations, the Rishiri Island History Museum, the Rishiri Town Museum, the Rebun Town Historical Museum, the Rishiri Fisheries Cooperative Association, the Kafuka Fisheries Cooperative Association, Jinpo Foods (a marine products processing company), the Hokkaido Federation of Fisherman’s Cooperative Associations, and the Fishery Affairs Division, Department of Industrial Promotion, Hokkaido Government Souya General Subprefectural Bureau for their assistance in onsite surveys on Rishiri and Rebun Islands, the provision of relevant data and materials, and the checking of information regarding relevant laws during the writing of this paper.
** This paper presents part of the outcomes of research conducted with the assistance of a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research and a Mitsubishi Foundation Research Grant in the Humanities (16H03570).



  • Expert Panel on the TAC System, Etc. (2008), “TAC-Seido no Kadai to Kaizenhoko (Chukan Torimatome) (Issues of the TAC System and Directions for Improvements (Interim Report)),” September 2008. (in Japanese)
  • Hokkaido Government, Department of Fisheries and Forestry, Administrative Division (ed.) (2016), “Hokkaido Suisangyo/Gyoson no Sugata 2016 –Hokkaido Suisan Hakusho (Hokkaido Fisheries White Paper: State of Hokkaido’s Fishing Industry and Fishing Villages, 2016),” June 2016, Hokkaido Government. (In Japanese).
  • Hokkaido Government, Fisheries Management Section, Fisheries Bureau, Fisheries and Forestry Division (ed.) (2015), “Hokkaido Suisanshigen Kanri Manyuaru 2015nendoban (Manual for Management of Fishery Resources in Hokkaido, 2015 Edition),” Hokkaido Government, and Fisheries Research Department, Hokkaido Research Organization. (in Japanese)
  • Hokkaido Government Souya General Subprefectural Bureau, Fisheries Section, Regional Development Department (ed.) (2015), “Souya no Suisan Heisei 25nendoban (Souya Fisheries, FY2013 Edition),” Hokkaido Government Souya General Subprefectural Bureau, October 2015. (in Japanese)
  • Rebun Town (2016), “Gyoshubetsu Gyokakudaka no Suii (Trends in Fishery Yields, By Species),” February 2016. (In Japanese)
  • Rishiri Town, Development Promotion Section (2016) “Hesei27nen Gyogyo Seisan Jokyo Shiryo (Documents relating to Status of Fisheries Production, 2015),” January, 2016. (in Japanese)
  • Rishirifuji Town, Fisheries and Port Administration Section, Industry Promotion Department (2016), “Hesei28nendoban Rishirifuji-cho no Suisan (Rishirifuji Fisheries, FY2016 Edition),” April 2016. (in Japanese)