Gakushi Ishimura named Pew Marine Fellow, supporting research into fishery resilience

The Pew Charitable Trusts officially named Gakushi Ishimura, an associate professor at Iwate University in Japan, a Pew Marine Fellow on 1 April, which comes with a USD 150,000 (EUR 124,882) grant to support his fisheries research over three years.

The research funded by the grant will focus on investigating the responses of Japanese fisheries to extreme events, such as the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami and the current pandemic. Ishimura will lead a series of dialogue workshops and build a database to identify changes in fisheries’ behavior and the long-term implications for Japan’s marine biodiversity.

One aspect differentiating the two disasters in Japan is that the 2011 earthquake and tsunami resulted in reduced fishing pressure, contrasting the COVID-19 outbreak, which has resulted in increased fishing pressure in South Korea and Japan. According to Ishimura, analysis from Global Fishing Watch found that fishing pressure all over the world decreased during the pandemic, except in Japan and South Korea, where fishing hours – mainly of medium-sized longline vessels – increased.

“We don’t know exactly why, but maybe they want to make up for the price decrease by harvesting more, which would be a worst-case scenario,” Ishimura said.

Another possibility may be that fishermen might be trying to build up their historical catch numbers in order to qualify for more allocations of individual quota under reforms to Japan’s fisheries law – though Ishimura said that he was not sure if the fishermen are aware that this is how the system will work.

Ishimura's work under the fellowship will also look at changes to the environment from disasters, such as marine environmental changes. His planned workshops are an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with fishers to get a wider perspective on the industry, Ishimura said.

“For the Kesennuma longliners, I was involved in that fishery since before 2011. The first thing is to tell my story and experience to the people, then at the workshop, it’s going to bring up their stories,” he said. “The point is, dialogue brings more stories and cases. We will build a kind of common knowledge – not only for the fishermen, but also for the wider stakeholders.”

Beyond the research funded by Pew on harvesters’ behavior in fisheries, Ishimura leads a team at the university that focuses on four additional themes: upside bio-economic model, AI analysis on satellite vessel data, successful fisheries in Japan, and portfolio fisheries, referring to the benefits of a mixed fishery rather than a targeted fishery – mainly its resiliency when the harvest of a particular species is poor.

“My first experience study[ing] fisheries was in the Northwest U.S.–targeted fisheries. And at the time – it was 2000 – always in classes or in real cases, people were talking about ‘bycatch’ and that word and concept was really weird for me,” Ishimura said. “Because in Japan, whatever you catch, you eat!”

Japan is in the process of extending the total allowable catch (TAC) system to cover more species. But Ishimura warned that this may not be suitable for areas in Japan that have very mixed fisheries, and that those fisheries have more resilience because increased catches of some species may offset a poor catch of others.

“The mobility of the fishery is quite limited – this is the Japanese coastal fishery system. A typical one is the large-scale set-net – they don’t move. It’s a really passive kind of fishing compared with the [other] fisheries out there,” Ishimura said. “When I see their catch, quite interesting things happen. Fish species and their compositions in catch are changing over time, but the income [is] quite stable.”

That stability is in contrast to fisheries in other regions, where some fishers are highly dependent on one species, Ishimura said.

“It’s not going to happen in the U.S. or Iceland. If the one species is gone, their fishery is gone,” he said. “The interesting thing is, we Japanese utilize different species, and even if the quantity is not so big, we can distribute and we can consume. And that is the beauty of the Japanese cuisine or Japanese culture, the Japanese market.”

Ishimura warned that the current fisheries reformation would also cause problems for processors who utilize different species.

“[The portfolio approach is] not a new concept. It has been done in Alaska or some areas, but the number of fish species is quite limited. In the Oregon groundfish fishery, that’s a lot of species and they do a sort of basket approach,” he said. “Still, the number of species [in Japan] is way more than that.”

Ishimura also noted that a big difference between the U.S. and Japan is the capacity for research, particularly for stock assessments.

“In Japan, we don’t have many stock-assessment scientists. We don’t have a good training program for them. And on the other hand, we have more species to manage,” Ishimura said. “Even if you do a pooling quota system or identify which one is a choke species, the first thing is science and stock assessment. This is a big bottleneck we have. Maybe we can aggregate the management – [put] different species together – and reduce the scientific effort to manage. That’s what we are aiming for.”

The second of the four themes, the upside bio-economic model, is a model that shows that a temporary sharp reduction – of about 40 percent – in fishing in order to rebuild stocks would ultimately result in a positive return to the fishing industry – exceeding profits under maximum sustainable yield (MSY) or ‘business-as-usual’ scenarios, according to Ishimura. However, the lack of income over the rebuilding period of several years would be difficult to bear in the short-term, he said. So-called "blue bonds” have been suggested as a possibility to supplement cash flow of fishing companies. The bonds would be paid back on a plan linked to increased income from improved fishing in the future. However, Ishimura does not see blue bonds or the sharp drawdown in catch as practical, since local processors use local branding to promote products, and thus cannot simply substitute imported materials. 

“This [upside bio-economic model] study was from about two years ago, and the current research is on how this would affect the processors, because the current Japanese policy doesn’t have enough concern or support to the processing sector,” he said. “Our new study showed how reduced the landing to the local processors [would be], according to their dependency rate to the local fisheries. Also, we consider depreciation and investment time horizon for the fisheries and processing sectors. Then, we tried to show to the bureaucrats or politicians [that] we need to more careful.”

The concern, Ishimura said, is that when a species is unavailable to processors, the market for the product will vanish and won’t come back.

“It’s the right direction for the science to pursue. We support that. However, we need to have a different concern. They’re going to lose their market,” he said. “We have an experience after 2011. Our longliners catch blue shark. For hanpen [fluffy fishcake], we need to use surimi from blue shark. However, for almost two years, we could not provide blue shark surimi to the market. And then the market disappeared. The processors developed their own thing and then they didn’t need blue shark anymore. Those things happen.”

Ishimura's work on AI analysis of satellite vessel data will not be used for detecting illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, as is being done both other individuals and organizations, but rather for helping Japanese fisheries aiming for increased transparency.

“They want to establish themselves. They’re doing the right thing for sustainable fisheries and they are providing us with the data. And we built a kind of algorithm to show, maybe using AIS [automatic identification system] data, that even if the vessel’s identity is hidden, with the movements and pattern, they can figure out what they catch or how much they catch,” Ishimura said.

For the final theme, successful fisheries, Ishimura is not trying to make a template or model, but rather give some hints for leadership.

“When we visit the different places, we could find some common attributes there,” he said. “It’s not exactly a business model, [but] more like how the leadership would work when we are facing a difficulty.”  

Photo courtesy of Gakushi Ishimura


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