MAIZURU, Kyoto Prefecture -- As evening approaches, aboard the Yukimaru, a small trawler on the Sea of Japan returning to Maizuru, a fishing port in Kyoto Prefecture, the fishermen have sorted out their haul with workmanlike efficiency.
At this time of year in late February, their goal is to catch snow crab and young flathead flounder by dragging their net along the ocean floor.
They used to leave port in the middle of the night in search of righteye flounder, but instead they only caught a lot of sailfin sandfish with just a few righteyes.
"A fisherman takes what he can from nature," laughs Tetsuya Kawaguchi, the 70-year-old captain, who has been working the seas since he was 15. "That's always how it is, but there's nothing you can do about it."
But simply trusting Mother Nature will not protect the ocean's plentiful resources.
A pilot program for protecting the oceans is now gaining attention: the Certified Sustainable Seafood ecolabel, an international certification showing that seafood was caught using fishing methods that will not exhaust the ocean's resources.
The label was created by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a London-based NPO established in 1997.
In 2008, the Kyoto Prefecture Motorized Trawler and Fishing Association became the first organization in Asia to acquire the certification for snow crab and flathead flounder. The association has been applauded for efforts including the establishment of seasons and zones in which crab fishing is banned, as well as widening the holes in its fishing nets to allow smaller fish to escape.
The annual snow crab catch is recovering after plummeting from 369 tons in 1964 to 58 tons in 1980.
"Lately the numbers have gone back up," Kawaguchi says. "We can't just think of ourselves and leave nothing for the next generation."
Obtaining the MSC label requires filing hundreds of pages of reports along with local surveys and other inspections costing millions of yen, all to establish that the organization is not overfishing and is minimizing its ecological impact. Even so, the number of entities acquiring the certification continues to grow. There are labels for more than 130 species, including Canadian sockeye salmon and Dutch mussels.
A seafood company in Kochi Prefecture has even obtained the certification for the skipjack tuna it catches with pole-and-line fishing.
Although 0.5 percent share of sales is collected from those who apply the label to pay the labeling fee, many major supermarkets in the West have announced plans to handle more MSC seafood. The Hokkaido Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, its eye set on Western markets, applied to have its scallops (which account for more than 80 percent of the catch in Japan) certified. Their application is currently under review.
Thirty percent of the Hokkaido federation's scallops are sold for export. A federation official says, "We have to adapt to new supermarkets overseas that won't handle uncertified seafood."
However, in Japan only a few retailers such as Aeon place products with the MSC ecolabel on their shelves.
International certification showing that a product is environmentally friendly is not limited to seafood. There are also labels for coffee, tea, bananas and more.
The Rainforest Alliance, an NPO in the United States, issues a mark featuring a green frog to certify sustainable practices such as production that protects animals and forests as well as farms with improved working conditions. The frog has even been spotted in Japanese towns.
In 2010, Rainforest Alliance-certified products had global market shares of 15 percent for bananas and 2 percent for coffee. The share for tea is around 3 percent, but by 2020 the organization expects this will rise to 20 to 30 percent because Lipton, the world's biggest tea brand, will switch to procuring all leaves for its teabags to those grown on certified farms by 2015.
A public relations representative from Unilever Japan K.K., which owns the Lipton brand, says, "If we don't think about the environment, the soil gets overworked and quality falls. This is an investment we need to sustain our business."
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