As an affiliated agency of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the Fisheries Agency is charged with “the proper conservation and management of fishery resources, the securing of a stable supply of seafood, and the promotion of the growth of the fisheries industry and the welfare of fishermen. (Article 37 of the Act for Establishment of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries*).”
Appointed director-general of the Fisheries Agency in 2021, Takashi Koya has been engaged in fisheries administration since he first joined the agency, and he has also frequently participated in the Tokyo Sustainable Seafood Summit organized by Seafood Legacy.
Director-General Koya is leading reforms of Japanese fisheries, and at the start of 2023, he discussed his vision for the fisheries reforms with Wakao Hanaoka, a CEO of Seafood Legacy Co., Ltd., which seeks to succeed the legacy of the oceans for the future.
Born in Fukuoka Prefecture in 1962. Received a Bachelor of Fisheries from Faculty of Agriculture in the Kyushu University in 1985. Joined the Fisheries Agency in April of that year. He experienced a Vice Director General of the Fisheries Department in Ishikawa Prefecture from 2006, a Chief Negotiator of the International Affairs Division in the Fisheries Agency from 2008, a Senior Officer of the Fisheries Management Division in the Fisheries Agency from 2012, a Councilor of Resources Management Department in the Fisheries Agency from 2014, a Director of Resources and Environment Research Division in the Fisheries Agency from 2016, a Director General of Resources Management Department in the Fisheries Agency from 2017, and became a Deputy Director-General of the Fisheries Agency in 2020. He was appointed as a Director-General of the Fisheries Agency in 2021.
Born in Yamanashi Prefecture in 1977. Grew up in Singapore from an early age. After graduating from the Marine Biology department at the Florida Institute of Technology, he was involved with marine conservation projects in the Maldives and Malaysia. Served as senior oceans campaigner and campaign manager, etc., for the Japanese branch of the international environmental NGO Greenpeace from 2007 before going independent. Established Seafood Legacy Co., Ltd. in July 2015, assuming the role of CEO. He works to connect diverse stakeholders in foreign and domestic business, NGOs, government, policymakers, academia, and the media, and designs local solutions which are suited to Japan’s environment based on international standards.
Hanaoka: First of all, please tell me about your motivations or reasons for joining the Fisheries Agency.
Koya: Ever since I was a kid, I loved fish, and when I was in kindergarten, I wanted to grow up to be a fisherman. There was sea sand in the sandbox, so I’d spend almost all my time playing and looking for shells. During the reading time in elementary school, I would mostly look at the picture dictionaries, and the teacher got mad at me when they told me to write a book report. I said, “I can’t because I only looked at the pictures.”
Anyway, I was totally obsessed with fish, and when I went to university, I really wanted to be a researcher, but when I took the civil service exam, I was joined in an administrative role rather than a research role. That led me to where I am today, so instead of putting a lot of thought into choosing this life, I got here because ever since I was little, I never knew anything else.
Hanaoka: You just love fish through and through.
Koya: Recently, when Sakana-kun visited the Fisheries Agency, we had a really esoteric conversation about river fish, which surprised even Sakana-kun, and we got really into it until his manager said they really had to be going and put a stop to it.
Hanaoka: I’ve also loved the ocean since my school days. It felt good to become one with the vastness of the ocean, and it made me genuinely sad that the ocean was being ruined. I carried those feelings with me at the NGO I formerly worked for through to the present, so I can sympathize with you, who has never wavered in his love of fish.
Hanaoka: In your 40-year career with the Fisheries Agency, what things have made an impression on you?
Koya: Meeting you at the IWC (International Whaling Commission)meeting in 2008 was memorable.
Hanaoka: That was my debut at an international conference. At the time, I worked at my former workplace NGO, Greenpeace, and I’d greet the people from the Fisheries Agency or Japanese government by handing them my card and saying, “I’m from Japan,” but once they look at the name of the organization on my card, they wouldn’t have anything to do with me. You were the only one who looked me in the eye and spoke with me, and it really stuck in my memory.
Koya: At the time, there was a lot going on between Greenpeace and the Fisheries Agency. I was actually hesitant to speak with you, so I did it like I was having a conversation as just an ordinary person. Greenpeace used to blame the Fisheries Agency for everything, right?
Hanaoka: For that NGO, raising questions was their forte.
Koya: Anyway, I happened to see an article around 5 years later where you said, “The Fisheries Agency has been doing a good job recently on bluefin tuna stock management in the WCPFC (Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission) Northern Committee,” and I thought, “Ah, whichever organization they might be in, the people who are paying attention are seeing our efforts.”
When the catch quota on bluefin tuna was introduced at the IATTC (Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission) meeting in 2014, Mexico was strongly opposed. These days, the proposal to cut the bluefin tuna catch in half is seen as a major win by the Japanese Fisheries Agency, but you played an important role in each step, especially in the process leading to the decision by Mexico not to increase the bluefin tuna catch quota any higher when they had been planning to expand it.
Hanaoka: It’s important to raise questions, but in the end, I felt it was important to go beyond that and bring in more stakeholders and give support to resolve the issues. I had some bad experiences with Japan bashing at international conferences, so the Fisheries Agency moving forward encouraged me.
Regarding Mexico, the majority of bluefin tuna in their waters were farm-raised to consume in Japan, so we went to work with the major Japanese traders and asked them to make their standpoint clear that it would be no good to raise the quota irresponsibly. This approach to the market, industry and companies has the same basic mindset as Seafood Legacy today. Going independent from the NGO specializing in raising questions in conflicts, and founding my own organization is thanks to this experience which they gave me.
Hanaoka: Japan is very vulnerable to scapegoating at fisheries-related international conferences, but like your example with Mexico, I think you’ve been successful at advancing international negotiations and reaching accords with foreign governments. Was there some secret to this?
Koya: I was just working under my distinguished superiors to prepare for the negotiations, so I wouldn’t exactly call it a secret, but I did work very hard on data analysis in advance. We would plot out what field we’d be fighting in and what the respective positions were like a checkerboard so we could see where everyone was, and then we’d figure out that we’d butt heads with them here, what they want is over there, and in a give and take situation, we should give here and take there.
Hanaoka: This lets you create a win-win situation.
Koya: Well, ideally it looks like a win-win, but really Japan is coming out ahead. (Laughter) Even so, we make sure they feel like they also won.
Hanaoka: How did you feel when you took on the heavy responsibility of Director General of the Fisheries Agency in the middle of the fisheries reforms in the summer of 2021?
Koya: I was scared.
Like every agency, it’s divided into technicians and administrators, and the administrators are developed into the future leaders of the Fisheries Agency by working on policy and budgets. In that sense, I was special even among the technicians, having only done international negotiations and stock management, with zero experience in domestic budgets and law, or laying groundwork with lawmakers.
So, I was scared of being dropped into a field I had no experience in, but there was no sense in dwelling on the past, so I did my best to figure out how to make up for my shortcomings and find a way forward.
Hanaoka: The Japanese seafood industry has been decaying. The aim of the fisheries reforms you’re working on at the Fisheries Agency is to revive it, but first, please tell me your vision for the reforms’ goals.
Koya: I’d like to ensure that the fishery resources in Japanese waters remain in good condition and are being used sustainably, these fishermen can prosper, and as the population continues to decline, that the industry can bring in foreign currency through exports.
Hanaoka: We often use the word “sustainability” which is central to the environment, society, and the economy. This does not mean that we don’t need to care about the society and economy as long as the environment, that is, resources are sustainable. I don’t think you can’t call it sustainable unless all three are on the same page. We’re working along the same lines.
Koya: Toward how to achieve a V-shaped recovery. When I was a child, a fisheries company had its own professional baseball team. It was called the Taiyo Whales. I heard when they wanted to sign a promising player, they’d say they should go hunt another whale. I grew up when Japan’s seafood industry was strong, and looking back now, catch volume peaked in my senior year at university. It’s been in decline ever since I joined the Fisheries Agency in 1985.
So even though we tried our best, when you look at the big picture and how the slump has only continued, it makes me think something must have gone wrong. This was all blamed on external factors, like being kicked out of foreign waters, lots of foreign fishing vessels coming into Japanese waters, environmental changes, or reclamation projects, and I feel like what’s missing is the perspective of whether we were going about it in the right way, and if there is anything we need to improve.
At the very least, until I leave this post, I would like to build the foundation for a V-shaped recovery.
Hanaoka: The Fisheries Act was amended for the first time in 70 years. The number of stakeholders who have an interest in resolving the issues currently the industry face are definitely increasing, including not only fishing industry workers, but also retailers, food service companies, financial institutions, civic organizations, and consumers, and the same can be said of the speakers and participants at the annual TSSS. Some say that it should be clear in the law that Japan’s fishery resources are a public common asset.
Koya: While I won’t touch on its validity as a legal argument, as to whether writing it into the law as a “public common asset” would advance the fisheries reforms roadmap, if we were to argue in favor of a new TAC (total allowable catch) for red sea bream, for example, there are people who would oppose it whether it was written into the law or not. Over the last few years, the Fisheries Agency has been working with its small staff to increase the number of TAC species from around 10, so I want to prioritize that work.
To change the wording of the law, the Fisheries Agency would have to devote all of its efforts to it, and we would end up abandoning the practical work of expanding TACs. On top of that, there aren’t many countries that have explicitly defined them in the law as a common asset like Russia and Norway have. It’s important to devote the Fisheries Agency’s limited capacity to figuring out how to advance the introduction of TACs. (Continued in Part 2)
In Part 2, the Director General of Fisheries Agency, Takashi Koya, and CEO of Seafood Legacy, Wakao Hanaoka discuss managing stocks to achieve their vision for fisheries reforms, challenges in distribution, and the prospects for the future.
Original Japanese text: Chiho Iuchi
Photography: Kazuya Hokari