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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Nemuro faces fisheries-conservation dilemma

Staff writer

NEMURO, Hokkaido — Despite requests by a committee of UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, fishery associations in Nemuro remain baffled by the idea of safeguarding their traditional foe.

News photo
Fishermen empty their nets pulled from frozen Lake Furen in Hokkaido, a wetland on the Ramsar List for its significant environmental value. JUN HONGO PHOTO

"Until now, steller's sea lions were the fishermen's rival. To be asked to protect the mammals would be a disappointment for them," said Hiroshi Yamashita, chairman of the Nemuro Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The Fisheries Agency last August estimated that sea lions cause ¥1 billion worth of damage in Hokkaido every year, by tearing fishnets and eating catches.

Approximately 6,800 sea lions inhabit the area during the winter, the agency said.

"Although the region north of the peninsula is considered a tourist spot, the area to its south survives on fisheries. Putting restrictions on the fishermen's activities would cause many difficulties," Yamashita warned.

While preserving nature in Hokkaido has gained greater importance, especially after the Shiretoko Peninsula was designated by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Educational Organization as a World Natural Heritage Site in 2005, some locals see regulations as a threat to their business.

Shiretoko's natural beauty has drawn tourists from around the world, but it has also brought close scrutiny of the area from international organizations dedicated to natural resource conservation, including the IUCNNR.

And while the local tourist industry is thriving, many say restricting the local fisheries must be avoided.

To preserve marine life, Shiretoko fisheries groups have agreed to set self-imposed catch quotas, including a ban on areas where Alaska pollock lay eggs, and reducing fishing when catches decline.

Although the IUCNNR, which counts more than 1,000 government and nongovernment organizations and some 10,000 volunteer scientists as members, has welcomed such efforts by the fishery groups, the organization requested in a news conference last month that Shiretoko fishermen rethink their killing of steller's sea lions, a species listed as endangered on the IUCNNR's Red List.

The Fisheries Agency meanwhile calculated that 227 sea lions could be cleared from the area without negatively affecting the ecosystem.

Considering that about 100 sea lions die from being trapped in fishing nets every year, Hokkaido decided to allow the annual removal of 120 sea lions by the fishermen.

The Environment and farm ministries, which oversee the area, had originally agreed with local fisheries to adopt the plan.

News photo
A fisherman tows his catch by snowmobile across frozen Lake Furen in Nemuro, Hokkaido. JUN HONGO PHOTO

But the IUCNNR and UNESCO weren't informed of the agreement, which resulted in the proposal by the groups to halt the sea lion kill, Nemuro's Yamashita said.

Other Hokkaido fishery groups are also tied to various restrictions.

Nemuro's Lake Furen and its sandbank, Shunkunitai, were designated special wetlands under the Ramsar Convention in November 2005. The area is known for its short-neck clams.

Yoko Teshima, a volunteer worker at the Shunkunitai Wild Bird Sanctuary, said catches of marine products in the area are reported in detail to local fishery associations, and the sales records of fish markets are documented to track the amount and type of catch.

Such self-imposed restrictions are an effort to preserve nature in the area, she said.

Minako Usui, chairman of the Nemuro City Tourism Association, acknowledged that to help both tourism and local fisheries prosper poses a difficult balancing act, but one that must be achieved.

"It's easy for outsiders to demand better preservation of the area, but local fisheries depend on the fish catch for their livelihoods," Usui said.

"Do we prioritize nature, or do we prioritize our lives? Where do we draw the line? That is the question we must ask ourselves."

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