Innovative Company Helps Save Japanese Fishing

There’s a fresh approach to Japan’s fish industry future from leading companies explains Yamanaka Inc.’s Shinji Takada.

The company was founded in 2007 as a marine products wholesaler. Based on a relationship of trust with local producers, they handle everything from product development to manufacturing and distribution. Developing new products and finding new markets are key.

Shinji Takada takes the Sea Pineapple to New York © Shinji Takada

“We handle a wide range of activities from domestic distribution to building overseas commercial distribution as a regional trading company. The aim is to create changes in the fishing industry in the affected areas, which have been sluggish since the 2011 earthquake, and to create and contribute to the vitality of the local community.”

Japan was the most competitive fishing country in the world. Japan’s catch has been the number one in the world for 20 years since 1972, but has been declining since 1984, and is now about one-third of its peak.

The background is the establishment of the Exclusive Economic Zone stipulated by the United Nations Convention on the Sea Laws and the depletion of marine resources.

In addition, the environment surrounding the Japanese fishing industry has changed dramatically, and changes in ocean currents caused by global warming and rising seawater temperatures have caused changes in fishing grounds, resulting in fish species conversion.

Japan rapidly expanded its fishery as a national policy with the aim of resolving food shortages after the war, but we think the era of catching as many fish as you like is already over.

Miyagi Oysters being harvested
Miyagi Oysters © Yamanaka Inc

It is necessary to shift from catching to growing seafoods.

In recent years, as interest in the sustainable use of marine resources has increased worldwide, the aquaculture production is increasing year by year. Japan still has a deep-rooted “natural product belief”, and the image of farmed fish is somewhat lower than that of natural caught fish.

Still many people have the image of aquaculture as being a substitute for natural fish. But that is a complete misunderstanding from global point of view. Mariculture and fish farming, which produce and release seedlings, actively increase the sources of fishery resources and directly contribute to both the recovery of fishery resources and the stability of the management of coastal fishermen. Since our founding, we have been actively handling seafood produced from seedlings without feeding, contributing to the development of aquaculture.

Oyster Pate – new products are creating new markets © Yamanaka Inc.

The Sanriku Region is key

Offshore of the Sanriku region, where cold and warm currents merge, is one of the three major fishing grounds in the world. Without saying, the core industries along the Sanriku coast are fisheries and fishery processing.

Ishinomaki City in Miyagi Prefecture has a long history as a fishing town, and today, as one of the leading fisheries cities in Japan. The city is home to the Ishinomaki Fish Market, which is the largest in the Orient, and more than 110 fisheries-related business organizations.

Yamanaka continues to move forward as a processor and distributor of marine products produced mainly by sustainable aquaculture.

“In the Great East Japan Earthquake on Mar 11, 2011, which brought an unprecedented disaster, the tsunami caused devastating damage to fishery-related facilities such as aquaculture farms throughout the coastal area, and our factory was also washed away by the tsunami. I was about to give up rebuilding the factory for a while because my daily life disappeared and I couldn’t see the future, but I was able to resume business one month later” Takada recalls sadly.

“Despite being on the brink of despair, the reason I was able to resume at an early stage was that I was able to change my mind. I think the fact that all employees could share a strong sense of mission – ‘the meaning of being allowed to live’ and ‘don’t stop moving’, led to an early resumption. Whatever we lost in the disaster, we learned a lot, realized, and could have various opportunities. There are a lot of problems and issues that have not been solved yet, but since the earthquake, small innovations have occurred in the affected areas, and the momentum for the change of the entire community, both public and private, is increasing. We will continue to take on challenges in order to transform the fisheries and create a sustainable future.”

The company employs the latest technology in it’s rebuilt factory. State of the art devices such as tunnel freezer and proton freezer allow them to instantly cool fresh seafood and manufacture frozen products such as oysters with shells and scallops for export.

Scallops are processed in an automatic scallop stripping machine. The shells, mantle, middle gut and adductor muscles are automatically separated, enabling high-speed processing.

Local fisherman and oyster farmers are appreciating the new opportunities. Innovative products like Oyster Pate help, and the local delicacy Sea Pineapples have even been taken to New York by Takada.

Hanging  aquaculture oysters in Miyagi, Japan
The hanging aquaculture method of oyster farming is very effective © Yamanaka Inc.

Do you know the Japanese rule that distinguishes oysters for eating raw from those for cooking?

The difference between the two is by no means ‘freshness’. There are many oyster producing areas in Japan, but only oysters produced in a designated safe sea, which is called a clean sea area, can be eaten raw. A safe sea area is where domestic wastewater and industrial wastewater do not flow in, and various inspections such as water quality inspections have been conducted, and it has been confirmed that there is no harm to the human body even if it is eaten raw immediately after the catch. That is the sea area of Miyagi prefecture and the Sanriku coast.

Miyagi prefecture has the highest production of raw oysters in Japan, and it is a well-known production area. In winter, it is distributed as safe and secure oysters to mass retailers all over Japan.

In the past, oysters from Miyagi prefecture have been exported to the United States in large quantities since 1925, and oysters that inherit the DNA are now cultivated in various parts of the United States as Pacific Oyster or Miyagi Oyster.

Miyagi Prefecture is also famous as a place where the current modern aquaculture method “hanging aquaculture” was developed, and this technology has been spread not only in Japan but also overseas such as Australia. At the same time, Ishinomaki is making a name for itself as a major seedling production area and plays an important role in supplying juveniles to oyster production areas throughout Japan.

Local oyster farmer Masashi Abi is one who has seen the benefits.

“I have been producing only shucked oysters for domestic market during winter. But now I also started producing oysters with shell for export through Yamanaka in spring. I want more people in the world to enjoy my tasty oysters. Itʼs worth doing.”

As the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake passes it’s reassuring to see the amazing progress and recovery that has been made.

Masashi Abe shows off Miyagi scallops © Tamanaka Inc