Half a Century of Industry-wide Transformations: The Path to Survival for Japan’s Fisheries by Ensuring Sustainable and Vibrant Seas (Part 1)

Half a Century of Industry-wide Transformations: The Path to Survival for Japan’s Fisheries by Ensuring Sustainable and Vibrant Seas (Part 1)

Japan is surrounded by abundant oceans, and its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is the sixth largest in the world. The Japanese people have enjoyed the natural gifts of their oceans and inherited a diverse seafood culture. However, there have been complaints in recent years of having not enough fish for fishermen to catch, not enough ingredients for seafood processors, and not enough fish for distributors to sell. How is it that the fisheries industry, which is considered a growth industry in the rest of the world, continues to be derided as a declining industry in Japan?

Having overseen many critical milestones in the fisheries industry and continued to look ahead to the industry’s future both in Japan and the rest of the world for more than half a century, Mr. Naoya Kakizoe (Chairman of the Marine Eco-Label Japan Council) tells us that there is no reason why the fisheries industry should be a declining industry. In Part 1, Mr. Kakizoe, who had served in the top management of Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd. (hereinafter, “Nissui”) for over a decade, discusses what he had seen in the whaling industry in the 1960s, which marked the beginning of his career as a businessperson, as well as the subsequent trends in resource conservation.


Naoya Kakizoe
Naoya Kakizoe graduated from the Tokyo University of Fisheries and joined Nippon Suisan in 1961, where he served as President & Representative Director from 1999 to 2013. During this time, he also served as Vice Chairman of the Japan Fisheries Association, Chairman of the Japan Frozen Food Association, Chairman of the Japan Association of Refrigerated Warehouses, Chairman of the Association of the Safety of Imported Food, Japan (ASIF), and Chairman of the Japan Food Industry Association. In 2016, he was appointed Chairman of the Marine Eco-Label Japan Council.

Witnessing the impact of overfishing in the whaling industry in the past as a young man

――You had volunteered to be involved in the company’s whaling business as soon as you joined. What were the reasons behind that?

Among our various fishery resources on earth, whales have been under stock management since before the war and continue to be strictly regulated even after the war. Whaling was the star of our company at the time, but I wanted to get involved as soon as possible because I had already heard during my student days whispers that whaling would not be sustainable as a food resource.

――How many years did you work in Nissui’s whaling department?

I was there for 13 years. I was in charge of the Southern and Arctic Oceans, the waters around Japan, and the island of South Georgia.

When whaling first started to thrive in the Southern Ocean over a century ago, people sailed to spots that were easy to get to from Europe. They traveled south through the western part of Africa and found areas in the South Atlantic Ocean that were packed with whales. The remote island right in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean is the island of South Georgia.

Although the island was a British territory, a Norwegian company had built as many as 10 whaling stations there from which whaling vessels were dispatched. The British were displeased and expelled the Norwegians, confiscating the stations in the process. Norway, which had fallen on hard times, sought to explore new opportunities through the practice of mothership-type whaling that allowed it to catch whales offshore. This in turn placed the British, whose whaling stations were on land, at a competitive disadvantage.


Mr. Kakizoe looking back on the whaling industry in the 1960s (Photographer: Miki Yamaoka)


While Japan had held its operations using whale meat, other countries’ target were whale oil, which was the best ingredient for producing artificial butter, or margarine. Because of this, our company’s most important client when I was there was Unilever, the largest manufacturer of soap and margarine. However, whale oil is no longer used these days.

――Did they really use to make those products with whale oil?!

It was said that whale oil is perfect for producing margarine because it melts in the mouth at around the same temperature as butter, in addition to the fact that it was traded at a special price. Therefore, there was a great demand for whale oil in Britain and Germany, and it became a key export industry for Norway, given its small population. The whaling method used resulted in the excessive catch that could not be processed. When the catch exceeded the processing capacity, only the parts containing large amounts of easily extractable whale oil were utilized, and the bones were discarded. Many whale bones were thus scattered everywhere.

That was what I witnessed in my 20s. I could not believe such a thing was happening.

Christian Salvesen’s whaling station at Leith Harbor, South Georgia (photo courtesy of Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd.)


From a “first-come-first-served” basis to a quota system

――Although the golden age of whaling in South Georgia was in the 1920s, you had the chance to see its troubled legacy in the 1960s.

Yes, I did. I thought to myself that although these people looked good on the outside, what they were doing is terrible, even as Japan, which followed in their footsteps, was accused of overfishing.

――How was stock management for whales carried out?

Catching whales was of great importance in those days, and there was a demand for fishermen to catch as many whales as possible. Although there was a time when we could catch whales freely, people started to realize that there would be no whales left if we continued doing that, so everyone came together to establish rules for whaling before the war. Under the Olympic style, people would impose a maximum limit of, for instance, 10,000 whales in total, which made it a race to the finish line to catch those 10,000 whales. Setting quotas for each country only came later.

As was the case in Japan as well, it was not until much later that whaling vessels started to pay attention to the words of the fleet managers of motherships. This happened only after quotas were set for individual countries and companies. For the first time, companies had to think about how to best manage their whaling business.

For instance, a company may designate the number of whales to be caught in the morning and spend the rest of the day resting so that it does not catch the whales that have been allotted for the following day and compromise the freshness of these whales as a result.

In my opinion, it was not the case that the Westerners were more advanced than the Japanese; rather, they were the first countries to overfish in the modern whaling and fisheries industries, and Japan followed suit afterward.


Witnessing the launch of MSC certification

――In the 50-odd years from the time you joined Nissui in 1961 until your retirement from your position as the company’s president in 2012, what left a particularly strong impression on you?

The whaling business I was involved in when I was in my 20s left a very strong impression on me. Another memorable experience I had was an international conference I attended many years later in the 1990s.

There is a conference called the Groundfish Forum (organized by the International Groundfish Forum) that grew out of an association of European fishermen and processors that also includes resource scientists and distributors, and it gathers around 100 participants to discuss issues related to the fisheries industry. I participated in the conference in 1995 through the introduction of a New Zealand company. This was before I became the president of Nissui.

――An Asian country was invited to the conference?

I participated not as a member but as a guest. I was also surprised at how far they had come. It was at that conference in 1996 that the current Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) announced that it was launching a certification system. Its move was also supported by Unilever, which was no longer a company that produced margarine and soap from whale oil as it had transitioned into a food company that sold large quantities of frozen fish stick products, especially in Europe.

――These are sticks that are battered and fried.

The main ingredient for these fish sticks is Atlantic cod, and for Unilever, conserving the stock for this ingredient is equivalent to protecting its core business. The Atlantic cod population along the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in Canada had already been decimated by overfishing, so I had a gut feeling at the time that there will be a global movement toward having serious discussions about the need to protect fishery resources.

The Groundfish Forum has been held since the 1990s, with the 28th Forum held in Berlin, Germany, in 2019. (photo courtesy of Naoya Kakizoe)


――Didn’t the FAO publish its Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries in 1995?

Yes, it did. We went all out on that front. The Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth was published in 1972, also the year of the inaugural United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. That was the start of everything, and a decade later in 1982, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was signed, even though its provisions did not enter into force until later.

Ten years later at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, an agreement was reached that general eco-label certification systems would be effective for protecting nature and resources, with Canada’s timber industry being the first to take action on this front. After the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) was established in 1993 and expanded rapidly across Canada, MSC decided to emulate its certification system, which was not a bad idea at all.

――That was how the certification system expanded into the fisheries industry.

When MSC presented the idea of a seafood eco-label at the Groundfish Forum in 1996, there was an uproar. While the Scandinavian fishermen could not say no to the certification system because Unilever was their client, their Spanish counterparts were very much opposed to it. Spain’s seafood culture consists of many southern species of fish, such as the hake, whose stock status was not as critical as that of cod in Scandinavia. Despite the objections, the system was launched in 1997. However, MSC was confronted with many issues in its early days.

――Is one of the issues the lack of adoption of the certification system?

That’s right. It was not easy at all. No one knew about the certification system. MSC had to put in tremendous effort for more people to learn about the certification system and manage fishery resources based on scientific principles.


Nissui’s internal opposition to sustainability efforts

――What was the situation within Nissui at the time?

Nissui’s deep-sea fishing operations had practically ended by that point. Our last fleet of fishing vessels for salmon and trout was decommissioned in 1988. However, there were still some countries in which we were able to establish local companies to which we transferred our fishing vessels and continued to catch fish.


UNZEN, a fishing vessel under EMDEPES, a Nissui group company based in Chile, to which the Japanese-registered Unzen-maru was transferred to ensure the stable continuation of business operations. (photo courtesy of Naoya Kakizoe)


We were still able to catch fish in Argentina and Chile by establishing companies in those countries, even if the companies were 100% foreign-owned. New Zealand and the U.S. had regulations that we could only own 50% and 25% of the company equity, respectively, so we established joint ventures and transferred our vessels there. What was considered deep-sea fishing in Japan was regarded as offshore fishing in these countries.

――In other words, you were solely engaged in offshore fishing overseas while focusing on sales and processing in Japan?

We had no choice because it was no longer possible for us to catch fish on our own. We have also established a company in Alaska. Nissui used to catch around 1 million tons of Alaska pollock on its own in the past. We would then process the fish on our own trawlers and motherships, make fish paste, and sell it in Japan. That was how the fish paste industry developed in Japan.

The U.S. saw this and initially requested that we teach American fishing vessels how to catch Alaska pollock so that they could sell the fish they caught to Japan’s motherships. The idea that grew from this was a business in which the fishing would be performed by American vessels and the processing would be carried out in Japan. Although we had called this a joint venture, we were asked to build a processing plant in Alaska in the meantime, which effectively allowed the more resourceful country to take over the part that is more profitable. Therefore, as has been the case in the past, catching fish is not necessarily a profitable activity on its own.


Unisea’s processing plant and pollock fishing vessels at the Port of Dutch Harbor in Unalaska, Alaska. (photo courtesy of Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd.)

――How was the movement to conserve fishery resources perceived within Nissui?

It was perhaps around 2005 when the word “sustainable” started trending. In 2006, when we formulated a policy of sustainable business moving forward, our company’s domestic sales department was very much against it. Some employees told me that if we went down this path, the company would not have anything left to sell.

――How did you alter the mindset of others in the face of such opposition?

It is always tough dealing with opposition. There is even a phrase called “superficial obedience.” However, as a practical matter, the times were evolving rapidly. Therefore, I continued to present to the company the trends that were taking hold in the rest of the world. I would prepare a policy statement at the start of each year and hold a management meeting in November with representatives from our group companies in Japan and abroad, where we have a series of discussions on what is happening around the world.

I retired from my position as the company’s president in 2012, but the situation has changed dramatically since 2018. The people who had opposed the idea of transforming Nissui into a company that was fully committed to sustainability in 2006 because of their fear that the company would have nothing left to sell were now leading the company.


In Part 2, Mr. Kakizoe, who had served in the top management of Nissui for over a decade and was appointed Chairman of the Marine Eco-Label Japan Council in 2016, will discuss the challenges facing Japan’s fisheries industry and the possible solutions. >>>


Original Japanese text by: Chiho Iuchi