The Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency, Japan’s largest comprehensive research and development facility network for fisheries, is promoting research and development along with personnel training in the fisheries field. It consists of over 40 different research laboratories covering areas such as fisheries resources and technologies, as well as development and survey centers and affiliated fisheries education facilities.
This organization plays an important role in Japan’s fisheries industry, and its chairman is Masanori Miyahara. Since joining the Fisheries Agency in 1978, he has continually been involved with ocean issues on the front lines.
From his position as a member of the administration, how has he approached the fisheries workers in the field? What can we do right now to resolve current ocean issues? We talked with him about these topics.
──What is the role of the Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency? From your position, how have you approached the fisheries workers in the field?
The Fisheries Research and Education Agency consists of various research projects. Based on the fact that fisheries resources are decreasing, we are carrying out activities with the goals of ensuring recovery from the current conditions and transforming fisheries into a growth industry.
One of the major roles of this organization is to provide advice related to fisheries resources from a neutral viewpoint with scientific evidence. As the chairman, I focus on operating the organization logically for gaining people’s trust in our scientific suggestions while keeping up with the current circumstances of the world.
──Mr. Miyahara, from your perspective, what kinds of issues Japan’s fisheries are currently facing?
I have been involved in the work of the Fisheries Agency for more than 40 years now, and I have felt that the management of fishing to ensure sustainability has always been given insufficient attention, although we put effort into improving technology for catching fish. Unless we reverse these priorities, we cannot keep our fisheries resources sustainable for the future.
What’s important for management is transparency. In other words, we need to make clear when and who is supplying what fish through what kind of fishing methods. If fishermen in the field could only know this information, people tend not to share what they know. Thus we need to fix that kind of situation for ensuring transparency.
Also, for smooth management, we have to make restrictions. Not only on catch but also numbers of ships and numbers of fishermen as well. Balanced management like this is important. I think that restriction for catch volume without reducing the number of fishing vessels gets a lot of criticism from fishermen in the field, and it also contributes to violations. To prevent that we need to create a proper framework in advance. When there are no other options, as in small-scale coastal fishing, we may need to prioritize the allowance of catch. A detailed plan is required.
I have worked to improve the current situation, but truthfully, there is a lot of resistance from the industry. There are certain things they don’t understand, and also certain things that fishermen in the field don’t want to understand. The only way to break through these barriers is through conversation.
The first step is to take a humble posture and listen to what people have to say. This goes for not only fishermen but also other staff in the Fisheries Agency, as well as other research organizations like us. If we see things from only our own position and only listen to favorable opinions, that’s just no good. We need to carefully digest what we hear from others and think about it. I think this process is missing at present.
In my opinion, fishing industry professionals, researchers, government organization members, and the users who are supplied fish all need to have more candid and humble conversations with one another. Since long ago, fishing has always been a competitive industry, so fishermen have trouble cooperating with other vessels, especially those subject to different fishing laws. They also hate to report all kinds of things to government offices. However, we really all need to think about our fisheries resources together to avoid the worst possible situation.
In order to achieve these conversations, management personnel and stakeholders must develop relationships of trust with fishermen in advance. Only when these relationships are formed will they be willing to listen to what we have to say. Rather than forcing restrictions onto them, we need to develop a common ground of the issues we are facing first and foremost. The Japanese fisheries industry is complex with a large number of stakeholders, so it takes time and much effort. However, if we give up on conversation, it will be impossible to move forward.
──Mr. Miyahara, did you have a sense of crisis related to the management of fisheries resources when you first joined the Fisheries Agency?
At first, I didn’t think about that sort of thing at all. After graduating with a degree in fisheries, I joined the Fisheries Agency without thinking too much about it. I couldn’t even speak English back then, and I just wanted to work within Japan. However, I was assigned to the International Section.
When I joined the agency in 1978, it was immediately after the following international rule was enacted: “Fishing activities cannot be conducted by foreign vessels within 200 nautical miles (approximately 370 km) of any country’s coastline without permission.” Accordingly, I have worked on getting Japanese fishing vessels to withdraw from foreign waters on an almost daily basis. Japanese pelagic fisheries was heavily impacted by this international regulation, and it was the dawn of the 200 nautical mile era.
However, as I continued carrying out this kind of work, I started to recognise the importance of regulations. This is partly because even back then, the technology for catching fish was already quite developed. Even if the number of fish declined, fishing vessels were equipped with sufficient technology to search out the remaining numbers and catch them. After that, catch volumes were restricted, but the number of vessels remained the same, leading to repeated violations, and we eventually chased out almost all of the Japanese vessels from foreign waters.
If we continue to catch as much seafood as we can, eventually there will be no more fish left. Later, Japanese fishing vessels were replaced by American ones, and in the United States as well, proper management could not be achieved. As a result, there were temporarily drastic declines in fisheries resources such as Alaskan walleye pollock. If resources cannot be managed, they will definitely decline. Human has already known that because it experienced numerous times in the past, so we have to learn our lesson at this moment.
──From your position in the Fisheries Agency, how have you carried out a conversation with fishermen in the field?
In my 12th year at the agency, I was put in charge of tuna. I didn’t know anything about the tuna business, so I went to the auction in Tsukiji Market (currently moved to Toyosu) every month. People would tell me, “You’re in the way,” but I continued to visit. Eventually, this changed too, “You come here a lot,” and they taught me all kinds of things. The auctioneers at Tsukiji Market became my teachers.
Nowadays, there is a problem of the government not knowing what is going on in the field, but there is no way they can tell you what is going on in the field after just one visit. Without taking the initiative to make contact and visit such sites numerous times, it’s impossible to learn about the industry.
When I was in charge of tuna, the Japanese fishing industry had a very difficult time due to international regulations. Even here, the number of fishing vessels remained the same, while only the catch quota was lowered. Since there were too many vessels competing for the catch, some of them fudged their numbers. However, simply catching them for regulation violations doesn’t solve the problem.
You know the saying “condemn the crime, not the person,” right? Rather than forcing restrictions onto fishermen, we need to instead see the actual conditions and understand why these things happen. For example, rather than looking only at fishing, we should understand how the fishermen make a living and what trouble they have with. Taking action with understanding and consideration of actual conditions is important.
──In your initiatives up until now, what are some cases you have solved through conversation?
I still remember the negotiations with foreign vessels I carried out when I was in charge of tuna resources. Under the international regulations, if only Japan reduces its vessel numbers, that won’t allow the resources to recover. Both Japanese fishermen and government officials called for thorough management of fisheries resources for not just Japanese vessels but also those of foreigners’. In particular, there was a problem with fishing vessels operating outside of the framework of international management, using the flag of a non-member country to operate outside of management (flag of convenience ships).
Accordingly, I tried to persuade these flags of convenience ships. We searched for the owners of the fishing boats that were catching fish without setting quotas and pursued them to find out who was doing it.
As I did this, these fishermen formed a flag of convenience union to resist our efforts.
The Japanese officials were all angry at the shameless thieves.
However, I welcomed it. After all, now I finally knew whom I needed to negotiate with. It eventually took more than five years from the start of my efforts, but by having numerous dialogues with these fishermen, I successfully incorporated their operations into the international regulations for foreign vessels.
In the background of this achievement, I had a powerful ally on my side. A certain major trading company in Japan assisted me in the negotiations with these foreign ships. When one of their top executives joined me, the negotiation progressed dramatically.
From the perspective of the trading companies, they would normally want to purchase fish in large quantities at low prices. Our interests are often in conflict with theirs. Despite that, this company became my ally, and the reason for this is my persistent visits to their headquarters, where I shared my feelings with key personnel through conversation. The power of conversation was at work here, too.
In the end, true regulation is impossible without first building a relationship of trust with your counterpart through conversation. When people violate regulations, simply punishing them through legal penalties is not effective. In my negotiations with foreign ships at that time, I believe I was only able to progress to resolution because I met the captains of these ships and had conversations with them.
──What will we need in the future to have a conversation?
Right now, there are lots of new technologies being introduced, such as Global Fishing Watch (GFW), and it’s important to use these technologies to collect facts. By sharing these facts, we can explain the fundamental reasons why regulations are necessary. If we try to start conversations when the other party doesn’t understand these fundamental reasons, they won’t listen to what we want to say. We need to work on both axes, to dialogue and to provide evidence.
This is true within Japan as well, and rather than looking at the results of resource assessment alone, we need to listen to what fishermen want to say, sharing a comprehensive understanding of aspects such as fish and ocean conditions, as well as trends in the value of landings, and carry out repeated conversations to determine what should be done. This is all we need.
The leading role in promoting this moving forward may not be fisheries cooperatives or the Fisheries Agency, but perhaps some other third-party organization. Internationally, there are a variety of different organizations which extend beyond national borders, and these groups are making the tide.
If a runner takes the lead, their companions will join in and follow behind. By passing on the baton from there, I think eventually our efforts will bear fruit. If we keep running steadily, allies may appear from unexpected places.
To achieve this, we should actively seek out the people we feel hate us. This includes parties whose interests conflict with our own, as well as people who are difficult to approach. Rather than using theory to overcome arguments, we need to convey our feelings properly. It’s not that they don’t understand, they just don’t want to understand. So, we continue to ask the question, what is the best way to make them understand me? Rather than people with the same ideas, we should talk to those who are uninclined to listen to what we want to say. That kind of person can come to the rescue in the end, and it happens unexpectedly often in my opinion.
──In your personal opinion, how will you pass on the baton to the next generation?
I imagine that government officials would feel too busy to work as they want due to a variety of restrictions and handling boring explanations to their department or to the National Diet. I am trying to pass on information and experience, but I always expect my juniors to engage with stakeholders more proactively and build their relationships of trust by themselves.
Also, while I am still working, I want to build a relationship of trust with Chinese stakeholders. Due to its position, Japan cannot continue to exist without relations with China. For this reason, I hope to promote initiatives for constructive relationships related to fishery resources.
As for my future, my term as chairman ends at the end of March 2021, and I’m planning to give advice on requests and perhaps operate something like a consultation office after my retirement. I would like to do any kind of work related to fish, as long as there is a place where I am needed.
In addition, there are some specific places such as isolated islands which I consider to need urgent action, and I plan to remain involved with these areas. Regional issues are not limited to the fishing industry alone, so I would like to create a successful example of revitalization through cooperation and consultation with the local government.
There are still issues left to resolve for the ocean. Since fishing is an economic activity, I think it’s difficult to expect all of these issues to be resolved in a short time with the rapid introduction of management. Under the insufficient system, there are always cheaters, and they make the most money. This is true all over the world.
Even so, we should make allies who go the right way little by little. If we could achieve what we discuss properly under a new management system, we can create a world where the majority will call out “You should stop doing that.” That is not impossible to achieve. If we can build a relationship of trust through dialogue, we can surely realize such a world.
Assigned to the International section of the Fisheries Agency, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 1978. Served as the first secretary at the Embassy of the United States for a four-year period starting in 1986. Left his position at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and was appointed as the chairman of the Fisheries Research Agency by public appeal in 2014. In 2016, the Fisheries Research Agency was renamed the “Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency.” Has also served as a government representative for the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), Japan-Russia Joint Fishery Committee, Japan-China Joint Committee on Fisheries, and the Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to Washington Convention, as well as president of organizations such as ICCAT in his career up until now.
Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency’s website