For the Japanese fishing town of Nemuro, Moscow holds the key to survival

NEMURO, Japan, April 15 (Reuters) – Japanese fisherman Tsuruyuki Hansaku was fresh out of high school when he served 10 months in a Soviet prison, arrested at sea on his father’s boat for catching cod in what the Russians considered it their territory.

The silver-maned resident of the fishing town of Nemuro in northern Japan, now 79, is still nervous about Moscow’s influence on the fortunes of his family fishing business and his hometown.

As Russian-Japanese relations sour over the crisis in Ukraine, no Japanese community has felt the fallout like distant Nemuro.

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The concern this time is the fate of talks held annually between the two governments to set the quota for Japan to catch salmon and trout born in the Amur River.

The so-called salmon trout negotiations date back to 1957 and usually end in March, leaving plenty of time before the traditional start of the driftnet season on April 10. Talks have long been touted as the only diplomatic avenue that remained between two nations even during the tense Cold War era.

This year, they have not concluded yet. The Japanese government and industry insiders say the delay is a show of Moscow’s anger over economic sanctions Tokyo joined its allies in imposing after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Japan’s fishing industry also needs Moscow at the table for three other annual negotiations that cover products such as kelp and Pacific saury in some of the world’s richest fishing grounds.

“If we can’t fish, we can’t live here,” Hansaku, whose company now mainly catches and processes Pacific saury, told Reuters at his home this week.

“It’s a matter of survival for us.”

The annual driftnet fishing season for salmon and trout in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) runs from April to June. Japan needs permission from Moscow to catch the fish even in its own EEZ due to a mutual agreement that grants rights over the fish to the country of origin.

Japanese government ministers had no update on the ongoing talks which entered day five on Friday.

Japan and Russia are in talks to set this year’s quota for Japanese fishermen to catch salmon and trout.

STORY LOCKED

The economy of Nemuro, a town of 24,000 on the far eastern tip of the island of Hokkaido, is heavily dependent on Russia for both fishing and Russian boat tours, despite decades of disputes on four islands in the region.

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Moscow took control of the islands that stretch from Nemuro in what Tokyo still considers an illegal occupation. Many former residents of these islands – known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kuril Islands in Russia – settled in Nemuro. The territorial dispute is the main reason why Japan and Russia have not yet signed a post-war peace treaty.

Around the city, reminders of Russia are everywhere: road signs in Cyrillic and signs asking for the return of the disputed islands. At Nemuro’s main Hanasaki port, Russian boats regularly dock to deliver sea urchins, crabs and kelp to local importers. Before the pandemic, Russian fishermen could be seen venturing into town to buy televisions and other goods to take home.

Hansaku is the quintessential inhabitant of Nemuro.

He was two years old in 1945 when his father, returning from the war, moved his family to Nemuro from Shikotan, one of the islands seized by the Soviets.

After his incarceration at the age of 19, Hansaku took over the family business like most firstborn sons were supposed to. The work could be dangerous: Japanese fishing boats were captured with such regularity during the Cold War that the Soviets ran a Japanese-only prison on the island of Sakhalin that Hansaku said held more than 100 inmates, including his father. and his brother, when they were there. the early 1960s.

“It’s all part of the tragedy caused by war,” Hansaku said. “We had to fish to put food on the table and you didn’t think about the dangers involved.”

Since the 2016 season, President Vladimir Putin has banned driftnet fishing for salmon and trout in the Russian EEZ. Due to shrinking fishing grounds, Nemuro and two nearby towns suffered a $200 million hit the following year, according to an estimate by the town and a local bank.

“My biggest worry is that the four negotiations will fail,” said Shigeto Hinuma, 71, a local fishmonger who saw his income plummet by 30% at his central store in Nemuro following the fishing ban. driftnet in Russia.

Hansaku, who had been involved in the talks for a quarter of a century until the ban – he has more than 20 trips to Russia – was among those who gave up salmon trout fishing altogether.

Now, the Japanese EEZ fishing grounds are also at risk for those still in the game. Even if an agreement is reached in the ongoing salmon trout talks, Hansaku’s Pacific saury trade remains at the mercy of Moscow.

Terms for this year’s Pacific saury fishery, which takes place from August, were agreed late last year, but Russia has yet to issue permits, Hansaku said. With Japan expelling several diplomats and ending Russia’s most favored nation status last week, the fate of the permits, as well as other bilateral talks, is uncertain.

“The disappearance of the fishing trade is unfathomable,” Hansaku said, adding that the ripple effect would spread to the rest of Japan.

“If we lose the industry, we will lose our culture with it. There is no culture where there is no prosperity.”

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Reporting by Daniel Leussink, additional reporting by Yoshifumi Takemoto and Nobuhiro Kubo; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim and Raju Gopalakrishnan

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