Back to Japan: The Latest in Fisheries & Aquaculture

Two and a half years after the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan opened up its borders to international travel on the 11th October 2022. This was the news I’d been waiting for, and after four years, I touched down in the country at the end of February and spent the first half of March getting reacquainted with fisheries and aquaculture. This month’s blog entry is a look at what’s been happening in two of Japan’s key sectors.

In fisheries, technology, artificial intelligence (AI) and smart solutions loomed large as a way of enticing young people to the sector. I attended a seminar held by Umito Partners, a consultancy in Tokyo that works with fisheries and fishery communities on MSC/ASC certification consultations and fishery projects and provides support in research, product development and PR. 

Japanese companies are increasingly creating high-tech solutions for problems faced in fishing, and some say that this can be a way to address the declining number of fishermen and bring young people back to the sector. During the seminar, organisations such as the Japan Fisheries Information Service Center (JAFIC) and IT firms including Ocean Solution Technology discussed IoT data-sharing platforms and the importance of gathering information, for example on seawater temperature, to form fishing grounds, improve the accuracy of forecasting and grasp the state of the oceans. The seminar also shed light on turning the knowledge and experience of older fishermen into data to pass this down to younger fishermen more efficiently. The second part was a panel discussion with younger fishermen including an octopus fisher from Hokkaido and the head of a firm called Lighthouse, whose system ISANA improves communication on fishing vessels and enables them to capture data and analyse it for decision-making. AI and technology are playing a larger role in seafood, the panelists said, and as they continue to improve, there will be countless applications for fishing and fisheries management. Although there are still hurdles to overcome such as running costs, Japan’s fishing industry has great potential and young people who are more experienced in technology will be key to building trust and getting things off the ground.

One of the guests at the seminar was sea perch fisherman Kazuhiko Ohno, who I had the pleasure of interviewing on Zoom towards the end of my stay. The eldest son of a family of fishermen, Ohno has been catching sea perch in Tokyo Bay for 42 years. Thanks to Umito Partners who arranged the interview, we had a fun discussion on the changing marine conditions in Tokyo Bay, how fishermen can play a role in helping to improve the environment, and how Ohno set up Japan’s first Fishery Improvement Project (FIP) not only to protect and pass on his sea perch fishery to future generations, but also to provide sea perch to athletes and tourists during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. The pandemic changed things drastically for Ohno when the games were delayed until 2021, but the sea perch FIP is thriving and working to increase scientific understanding of the fishery, maintain sea perch stocks in Tokyo Bay and improve fisheries management practices. My interview with Ohno will be published in the May 2023 edition of commercial fishing magazine Hook & Net.

As the world’s largest consumer of high-value fish and the third largest seafood importer after the European Union and the United States, it goes without saying that seafood is a big deal in Japan. But the country has been vulnerable to importing illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) seafood, largely due to lax traceability requirements. In 2020, Japan passed a new law to prevent IUU-sourced seafood from entering the Japanese market, and in December 2022, the Act on Ensuring the Proper Domestic Distribution and Importation of Specified Aquatic Animals and Plants was enacted. This was the subject of an afternoon with the staff of consultancy firm Seafood Legacy, which has been working to strengthen Japan’s position in implementing measures to address IUU seafood. By providing consulting services in responsible seafood to seafood-related companies, financial institutions, governments and international bodies, Seafood Legacy is aiming to maximize Japan’s potential as a key market for imported seafood. It says that if Japan is to play a key role in sustainable seafood, it must enhance its position internationally. Strengthening and speeding up multi-stakeholder cooperation and establishing opportunities for further dialogue, as well as taking different steps under the new act, will be key. 

Despite the challenges presented by COVID, aquaculture in Japan is continuing to do well. Companies such as Umitron are tapping into artificial intelligence (AI) to solve fish farming challenges. In 2022, Umitron began selling its automatic fish feeder Umitron CELL to Kura Osakana Farm, a subsidiary of Japanese revolving sushi chain Kura Sushi. Now, farmed AI Sumagatsuo — eastern little tuna or mackerel tuna — is being sold across the country, while Umitron’s fish feeder is enhancing farmers’ working environment and refining their operational and production costs and overall industry management. 

While in Tokyo, I also caught up with Dr. Marcy Wilder of the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS). Land-based shrimp farming is big in Japan as a way of securing steady supplies of shrimp, and with more companies entering recirculation aquaculture systems (RAS) production, Dr. Wilder has her work cut out with the farming of Pacific whiteleg shrimp through JIRCAS’s Indoor Shrimp Production System (ISPS). The RAS trend is being driven by the technology’s promise to limit negative environmental impacts and tighten biosecurity, said Dr. Wilder, but questions remain as to whether it can be profitable with the amount of equipment and water treatment facilities that are required. That being said, with a trip to Thailand involving land-based shrimp farms in March 2023, Dr. Wilder is optimistic, and it was also worth noting during my stay the work being done by land-based salmon farmer Proximar Seafood, which is planning to produce 5,300 metric tons of salmon from its facility at the base of Mt. Fuji. 

A key reason for Japan’s focus on land-based farming is the need to procure seafood in other ways amidst the mounting pressure on aquatic ecosystems. I spoke to Takahiro Morioka of Nichimo, who said that more people are rethinking where their seafood comes from and coming up with innovative ideas. He told me about an entrepreneur called Yosuke Kurihara of startup ARK Inc. He’s pioneering a land-based farm whose units are designed to fit into a parking spot. They have the capacity to grow 60kg of shrimp in a four-month cycle, and contain sensors that monitor water temperature and oxygen levels. Kurihara hopes that soon, his company will provide fresh shrimp and more to nearby cities and even commuters through a partnership with Japan Rail. This is bringing him to Fukushima, where he is aiming to set up his units in train stations and offer local communities the chance to sell land-based seafood. Kurihara himself is actually based in London, so we’ll be meeting up in May where he’ll tell me more about his work in London and where he goes from here in Japan and the UK. 

But by far the highlight of my time in Japan was a trip to Kushimoto and Osaka to catch up with Professor Yoshifumi Sawada of Kindai University for a tour of his bluefin tuna farms. Together with his team at the university’s Aquaculture Research Institute, Sawada has also started something new — the breeding of rabbitfish (Siganus fuscescens), a herbivorous species that could play a significant role in reducing food waste by eating items such as cabbage, lettuce, broccoli, carrot and cucumber, as well as herbs such as basil and perilla. The team is collaborating with local grocery stores, restaurants and farmers to collect waste vegetables for the fish, and has also joined forces with chefs and managers of high-end restaurants in Osaka and Kyoto that are selling farmed rabbitfish. Members of the public can get involved by participating in rabbitfish tasting events and gatherings to discuss declining fish stocks, the impact of climate change on the ocean and reducing food waste. The goal of this joint effort is not only the promotion of farmed rabbitfish, but also to raise awareness of the importance of aquaculture for Japan and highlight how it can contribute to issues like food waste reduction and steering away from fishmeal and fish oil use. Giving consumers a delicious dining experience and the opportunity to hear from chefs who handle seafood daily is one effective way to raise awareness, says Sawada. He also introduced me to the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka where I spoke to a group of students who are using farmed fish in their studies. We talked about the importance of aquaculture for Japan, the health benefits of seafood and how they see aquaculture developing in the future. 

Back in Tokyo, it was also a huge pleasure to meet some fellow fisheries and aquaculture journalists working for the Suisan Keizai Shinbun. We discussed a range of issues from bluefin tuna farming in Japan, the number of people in Japan and the UK who are eating less meat and focusing on fish and vegetables, the perception of aquaculture in Japan and the UK, consumer preferences between farmed fish and fish from the wild, and the UK seaweed farming sector, which was something the journalists were particularly interested in. I’ll be working more closely with the newspaper from now on to produce content in Japanese on aquaculture initiatives in the UK and around the world. I hope that through this work, readers in Japan will come to know more about fisheries and aquaculture outside their own country and build their own knowledge and connections. 

It goes without saying that COVID-19 greatly affected fisheries and aquaculture around the world, not just in Japan. The pandemic created many hurdles, but there is a lot that fisheries and aquaculture can learn from it, and it was most heartening to see that in Japan, work went on, for example by developing innovations and collaborating with one another more closely. Key steps like these were clear to see, and will continue to play vital roles in the new post-pandemic era. Aquaculture and fisheries in Japan have already featured prominently in the news since my return to the UK, most notably French firm Ynsect’s partnership with Marubeni to produce insect feed for sea bream and yellowtail farms, the use of AI in sturgeon farming and developments at Japan’s first land-based squid farm, which I’m looking forward to finding out more about later this year. I’m also keeping an eye on efforts to increase the amount of blue carbon absorbed by artificial seaweed beds, and the implementation of Japanese blue carbon offset crediting projects. There is no doubt that we can expect a lot more from Japan in the future. 

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