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Japanese bass fishing industry could be "destroyed" by new law

By IBI Magazine/Michael Verdon

The bass fishing market in Japan, which represents about US$600 million in sales or about a third of Japan's total recreational marine business, could become extinct if a new law takes effect in June, according to an official at Mercury Marine.

Jim Hergert, Mercury's international product manager, said in a letter to the American Sportfishing Association that a January decision by the Japanese government to "restrict" the importation, breeding, transport and releasing of bass will amount to the "extermination" of the species.

That, in turn, could result in the death knell of bass fishing in Japan, which is the second-largest bass fishing market in the world. It would also hurt Mercury's sales in that market. "Upwards of 70 per cent of the outboards and 95 per cent of the boats sold by Mercury Marine Japan are sold into the bass fishing market," he wrote.

"Mercury has the most to lose if this sport goes belly-up," Hergert told IBI.

But other US manufacturers would be affected by the systematic eradication of the black bass, originally imported from the US. "We've had some concern that this day would come," said Keith Daffron of Ranger Boats, a division of Genmar that exports bass boats to Japan. "We take this situation very seriously."

The black bass has been considered an "alien invasive species" in Japan for several decades, ever since Chicago mayor Richard Daley visited that country in the 1960s, and gave the Emporer largemouth bass from Lake Michigan as a gift. The bass, released into the waters of the Imperial Palace, proceeded to devour the ceremonial carp and koi.

Authorities in Japan, backed by international organisations like the IUCN World Conservation Group, say the predatory bass threatens native fish like ayu, chub and crucian carp.

Hergert says there is no science to substantiate that claim, and that the eradication is more about a struggle between user groups-commercial fishermen who are unionized, and the less organized bass fishermen.

"Japanese bass angling is a 'dark fishing' and cannot be called a sport," Minoru Sato, managing director of Zennai Gyoren, the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Assn. told the Los Angeles Times. "Bass anglers are very bad-mannered parking a car on a plowed field, cutting off lures if caught in fishing nets. It is a lawless situation regarding a foreign fish."

But the bass fishermen could amount to as many as three million anglers, according to the Japan Sportfishing Association. "Bass fishing is the largest sportfishing in Japan," says Hergert, who lived there for six years as part of Mercury's Japanese operation. Hergert saw a healthy and growing market that included several bass-fishing tournament circuits, bass magazines and a cult-like following for top anglers.

At its peak in the '80s and early '90s, the market accounted for over US$1 billion in sales of bass boats and equipment, much of it imported from the US. Sales now, due to a prolonged weak economy and the assault by local authorities on the bass fishing industry, are about half that, according to Hergert.

Though anglers can fish for bass at Tokyo-area lakes like Ashinoko, Kawaguchi, Yamanaka and Saiko, authorities in some regions require them to keep, rather than catch and release, bass to reduce its numbers. In others, they try to contain the fish to specific water bodies or eradicate them. In 1998, in Lake Biwa, officials set a target harvest of 300 tonnes to eradicate the black bass. They fell short, but managed to eliminate 170 tonnes.

Hergert has seen a steady decline in the industry. "In the early '90s, you were getting some pretty nice fish, but over the last couple years the size is going down and the number of fish being caught is less," he said. "Fewer people are participating now, and buying less gear, motors and boats. The excitement isn't there."

Some distributors that sold 500 bass boats per year in the mid-'90s now sell 100.

"The Japanese government does not tend to support leisure-related industries, but does have a tendency to reconsider policy change in response to political pressure from the US," he wrote. Hergert called on industry groups to contact the Japanese government to reverse its decision to effectively wipe out the black bass species. "It is an ecologically safe and enjoyable sport," he wrote.

(10 March 2005)

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