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Sport Fishing Sustainability in Japan

Sport Fishing Sustainability in Japan

Two years ago I spent 2 months in the small mountain village of Maze, Japan. I was seeking to learn all I could about tenkara in what could be considered the cradle of this method of fishing. Stories of my visit to Japan (and anything Japan related). But, I was often disheartened by the unsustainable approach to sport fishing in most streams and rivers in Japan.

Streams and rivers in Japan are treated as put-and-take fisheries, where the cost of the fishing license for a particular stream is often compared to the cost of fish in the market and seen as a cost to be recouped by keeping as many fish as will pay for the license. This is obviously not sustainable, as it was made clear when we had to load buckets of fish onto a section of the Maze river (Mazegawa) in preparation for a fishing class.

I have taken it on as a side project to inspire change in the way Japan thinks about its rivers in a modern society. I feel indebted to the Maze village and the Mazegawa, where I was hosted with open arms for 2 months. That is where I’m starting. I can can see there is a very long road ahead, and this will be a lifelong project, but I was encouraged when I was asked to write for the local newspaper what my thoughts for the Mazegawa were. It was published a few weeks ago and I just received my copy with “Part 1″ of a series of articles I plan . I’ll share the article I wrote below.

Openly voicing my views and suggestions on how to improve on the Mazegawa didn’t necessarily make me any friends when I was visiting. I was invited to local government meetings to discuss opportunities for developing tourism in the area. In these meetings I tried my best at being diplomatic and not too direct, but as a good westerner I did voice my thoughts.

When I shared my experience that the Mazegawa was one of the most beautiful rivers in the world but it had not fish, and suggested that a section of it be made strictly Catch and Release, the responses were not all that warm. Most of the responses I got were “it is a part of Japanese culture to keep fish”, which I had to call bull&#!~ (I didn’t say that out loud). It is a part of every culture and simply human instinct to want to keep any fish that we catch. It is part of the culture where I grew up, and it is part of the American gene too. However, culture changes with time and when there is a need to do so. Catch and Release was not the norm in America, but a movement that gained momentum in the 1970s helped it become a bigger part of the angler culture here.  Perhaps the lack of buy-in was because the owners of the fish hatcheries (private businesses which sold fish to the river management) were often also present in the meetings, and are an integral part of the local political makeup. However, I see it as a duty to voice practical and politically viable suggestions on things that seem very obvious to me but need full local support.

My suggestion to them is simple, take advantage of a river that is absolutely perfect for sport fishing and turn that from a supermarket into a resource for sport-fishing. In a country where hundreds of gorgeous streams are managed individually, and each one of them is doing the same exact thing (namely, buying fish from a farm, putting them into the stream they manage, and waiting for visiting guests to come and take the fish out), it should be easy to stand out of the pack. A Catch and Release stream in Japan would immediately be a “Purple Cow” and attract fishermen from all over Japan and the world, which is one of the main stated goals of each fishery. As for the hatcheries, what about selling fresh fish to the angler that is visiting? And, while they are it, sell some souvenirs too. Or, sell the fish to the river co-op that is not doing the same, as the Itoshiro hatchery has been doing with success.

On my next article I’ll be writing a relatively specific plan, primarily based on the suggestion of turning a portion of the river into a C&R section. If anyone has any points that I should bring up on my next article, perhaps an example of a river in the US that became famous when better managed or turned into C&R only, or other stories, that would be awesome.


The Most Beautiful River in the World

Mazegawa –  Sport Fishing Opportunities. PART 1

I have never seen a river as beautiful as the Mazegawa. Twenty-eight kilometers, and every kilometer is different – fast and narrow in one area, deep pools a kilometer downstream, slower and wider another kilometer away. The Mazegawa also has areas that are difficult to access and which hold treasures such as waterfalls, and perhaps even a fish.

The variety of water found on the Maze makes it the most interesting river in the world. It is a true playground to a certain type of people: the sport fishermen, the person who travels everywhere to catch fish, for fun.

Don’t ask me why some people, including me, like fishing so much. We, sport fishermen, spend lots of money on equipment, travel great distances, and spend a lot of time on the water to have fun fishing for Iwana, Amago and Yamame.  But, I can guarantee you we do not do it because we need to eat – it is much cheaper and convenient to go to a store and buy food.  It is irrational and I can not explain why we like fishing so much even if we don’t need to take fish home, but I can tell you I have created a very successful business in the United States selling equipment to the sport fishermen who, after catching their fish, release them. And I know enough fishermen in the USA and throughout Japan to tell you that sport fishermen do not need to take fish home to be happy.

The Mazegawa is a river where you can not come visit only once, or for one weekend. With the variety of water available for fishing, anyone who likes fishing has to return.  But, unfortunately beauty and variety are not the only thing fishermen need, fishermen need fish.

“The Mazegawa is the most beautiful river. But, there are no fish.”

In 2010, I visited Maze for my first time. My teacher brought me here to show me  what could be his favorite fishing area. But, he warned me: it is a beautiful river, but the fishing is not so good.

Before visiting the Mazegawa we spent 3 days fishing his favorite area, the Itoshiro river. The Itoshiro river, also in Gifu, became a “Catch-and-Release” river in 2002. Ever since it has attracted people from all over Japan because there are a lot of fish. AND, the co-op that manages the Itoshiro has not needed to put any fish in there for the last 10 years! All fish are born on the river, the local fish farms sell their fish to other areas and to businesses nearby.

The Mazegawa is a treasure. It is a resource that could be more valuable than gold. It could easily become a “destination-river”, a river where people fly from all over the world to visit.  The only thing missing is fish.

For the next newsletter I will write more about easy ways to make the Mazegawa be the best fishing destination in the world. But, for now I’d like to ask you to think about these 3 things:

1)   Past: If you like fishing and are over 40 years old, think about how the fishing was when you were growing up and how much easier it was to catch fish.

2)   Present/Sustainability: it is simple math; if people take more fish than are born, there will never be enough.

3)   Future: I met several young kids in Maze who like fishing, but they can not catch many fish. Kyosuke, one of the kids there, even likes tenkara. If you are a fisherman, next time you go fishing, think about putting some of the fish you catch back in the water so that Kyosuke can catch it when he gets older.