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December 21, 2017

How fishermen and scientists joined forces to bring back Kyoto’s snow crabs

The best outcome of deep trust between fishermen and scientists? Delicious, sustainable snow crab.
Leungchopan / Shutterstock


In a nation legendary for taking its fish seriously, Yasuo Shimada is a particularly serious fisherman. The 66-year-old native of Kyoto Prefecture’s verdant northern coast drags the bottom of the Sea of Japan for snow crabs and flathead flounder. The crabs, which he catches in winter, live in a band of cold, deep water about 30 miles offshore. Shimada sets out for these fishing grounds on his small, weathered boat around midnight and stays for a day and a half. He pauses neither to sleep nor to eat while he is there. Instead, he mans the bridge around the clock as he and his crew of four haul in net after net, tossing back immature crabs and keeping only the largest of the long-legged, rust-red crustaceans.

“My crew thinks I’m crazy,” he says. But the crabs are the foundation upon which his whole life sits. Prized in high-end restaurants for their delicate, slightly sweet flesh, which sells for up to $28 per pound in the shell, snow crabs bring in over two-thirds of Shimada’s annual income. Without them, he says, his fishing business would fold.

Forty years ago, that nearly happened. Overfishing and bycatch pushed the snow crab population in the Sea of Japan — where the vast majority of the country’s supply is caught — to the edge of collapse. In response, Shimada and a small band of his fellow Kyoto crab fishermen collaborated with scientists to radically change the way they managed the fishery. They did this voluntarily, well before the Japanese government capped the annual crab catch. Their innovations were so successful that they not only reversed the local decline but also transformed how these crustaceans are managed throughout Japan. Today, Kyoto’s snow crab population has rebounded to approximately five times its lowest level. If the fishermen hadn’t taken matters into their own hands, scientists say, the crabs may never have bounced back.


On a mild April afternoon, Shimada drives half an hour up the coast from his home in the town of Maizuru to meet me at Kyoto’s Fisheries Technology Center, which works directly with fishermen to improve fishing methods and stock management. I’ve asked him and several scientists from the center to tell me how they achieved this impressive turnaround. Shimada is confident and direct, with a short fuzz of salt-and-pepper hair, a round frame clad in a black turtleneck, and a thick local accent. He weaves his tale of boom, bust and recovery from the concrete details of a life at sea: rope weights and winches, storage tanks and the love lives of crabs.  

Seated beside him in this room overlooking the calm blue ocean is Atsushi Yamasaki, the 58-year-old director of the center. He, too, has been involved in the efforts to save Kyoto’s crabs nearly from the start. His background and manner, however, could not be more different from Shimada’s. He tells his side of the story in the thoughtful, carefully modulated language of a career scientist.

When Shimada talks, Yamasaki leans back to listen attentively, and when Yamasaki speaks, Shimada gives him the same respect. The depth and balance of their relationship is immediately clear. Each seems to understand that the recovery would not have been possible without the other. This mutual trust between fishermen and scientists has been central to Kyoto’s success — especially given that in Japan’s community-based fishery management system, the government lacks the power to unilaterally impose conservation measures.

“Science played a very important role,” says Mitsutaka Makino, a social scientist at Japan’s Fisheries Research and Education Agency, who has studied the history of snow crab management in Kyoto. But, he says, there’s more to the fishery’s success than science. “Local researchers like Dr. Yamasaki also have a very good relationship with local fishermen, and talked with them again and again,” Makino says. That carefully built relationship is the foundation of a successful conservation partnership that has lasted nearly four decades.   

Money crab

Fifty years ago, when Shimada first joined the crew of a local boat, he never imagined any of this would be necessary. It was 1968, the heyday of crab fishing in the western Sea of Japan. Just a decade earlier, crabs had mostly been a secondary species for Kyoto’s fishermen. Shimada remembers the smaller, less-valuable females selling for the equivalent of 2 or 3 cents apiece at local vegetable stalls — cheap enough that housewives would serve them up as an after-school snack.

A few decades earlier, they had been ground up and spread onto fields as fertilizer. But in the 1960s, as Japan’s economy entered its explosive post-war recovery, demand for snow crabs shot up. Roads to cities improved, refrigerated transportation increased and upscale restaurants in places like Kyoto began serving fresh crab to their guests. Suddenly, the humble snow crab was a symbol of luxury. Large, mature males were the most prized of all.

Fishing technology was improving at the same time. The basic tool of the Kyoto bottom trawlers is a long, V-shaped net called a Danish seine. When Shimada started out at 17, his work consisted mostly of pulling this net onboard by hand and coiling 10,000 feet of seawater-soaked tow rope into neat piles. “Every day I’d say to myself, when I get back to shore I’m quitting,” he recalls. But he did not quit, and within five years, the captain had installed a mechanical rope-winder and net-lifter. Horsepower leapt tenfold, and both net size and rope width doubled. All of this enabled him to catch more crabs to meet the rising demand. Fishermen along the coast were doing the same — and existing government regulations did little to restrain them.  

Soon, Yamasaki says, the numbers of male crabs dropped as fishing pressure intensified. To fill the gap, fishermen began targeting more females and immature soft-shell crabs, even though these sold for far lower prices. This undermined the stock’s ability to reproduce. At the same time, the flounder fishery — which overlapped spatially with the crabbing grounds in spring and fall, when the crab season was closed — was sweeping up huge numbers of the dwindling crustaceans as bycatch. Most died from exposure to heat on the boat decks before fishermen had a chance to throw them back. Yamasaki says the combination of overfishing and bycatch triggered the population crash in the 1970s. By 1980, Kyoto’s offshore catch had tumbled to 58 metric tons, just 16 percent of its peak in 1965.

The crab fishermen knew that business couldn’t go on as usual, but they had no idea how to solve the problem. “We were running ourselves into the ground catching fish just to make the same amount of money we’d been making off the crabs,” Shimada recalls.

Turning points

In 1981, a scientist arrived at Kyoto’s Fisheries Technology Center who would alter the course of those fishermen’s future. Nicknamed Dr. Crab, 42-year-old Masatoshi Shinoda had been studying snow crabs since his student days, and knew more than just about anyone else about their behavior and ecology. He began drawing up a recovery plan for Kyoto’s snow crabs as soon as he took command of the Center’s Fisheries and Marine Research Division. Shinoda wasn’t just a top-class scientist, however. Those who worked with him before he passed away in 2006 say he was also a strong and much-respected leader.

“He was popular with the fishermen, and they trusted him,” says Yamasaki, who was mentored by Shinoda and took over the snow crab project in 1984. Yamasaki explains that trust is essential in resource management: “If you don’t have trust, you can propose all the good ideas you want, but no one will listen to you.”

Given the daring nature of the recovery plan Shinoda had drawn up, he needed as much trust as he could get. He had quickly identified a number of sites where the crabs reproduced and determined that fishing in these areas must stop. Simply mapping out protected areas on paper, however, would not guarantee that the long Danish seine nets weren’t accidentally (or purposely) dragged through these off-limit zones. Instead, Shinoda wanted to make fishing there physically impossible. He drew up plans to drop an array of hollow concrete blocks measuring about 11 feet square inside the protected areas. Any wayward trawl net would snag on these blocks, rendering fishing impossible.

Nothing of this sort had ever been done in Japan. Moreover, neither the center nor the central government had the power to implement it on their own. That’s because the Japanese government exerts relatively weak control over fishermen compared to its counterparts in the United States and elsewhere. Local fishing cooperatives, meanwhile, have the power to push back against regulations they perceive as overly harsh. This curbs the effectiveness of top-down management measures. For instance, Japan’s government has never closed a fishery that exceeds its quota; instead, it sometimes raises catch limits to match what fishermen are hauling from the sea. Given this situation, fishery recovery often hinges on voluntary, fishermen-led conservation measures.

In this case, the decision had to be made by the captains of the 29 bottom trawling boats then operating in Kyoto Prefecture. These captains (there are 15 today) make up the Kyoto Danish Seine Fishing Federation, and own the only vessels in the prefecture licensed to catch crabs. The captains did not like Shinoda’s idea.

“It was a very, very big decision,” says Makino. The protected area would be permanent, he points out, and there was no guarantee it would work.

Shinoda spent two years meeting with the captains. Eventually, he was able to identify a small spawning site that was of high biological importance but low importance to the fishermen because it did not yield many adult male crabs. He proposed this as a trial reserve. “The fishermen very reluctantly took the plunge,” says Yamasaki.

The prefectural and central governments pitched in funds, and in 1983, the first protected area was created.

Good results multiply

The experiment began yielding signs of success within a year. “We’d trawl the area around the protected area, and then we’d come back the next day and there would be crabs there again,” says Shimada, who took over as captain of his father’s ship in 1991. “Sometimes during the breeding season from late January to early March, you could wait half an hour and the males would start coming out in search of females. It was that different.”

Shinoda and Yamasaki collected data each summer from 1984 to 2003 to back these anecdotes up. By dropping traps both inside and outside the protected area, they found that per-trap catch was on average 3.4 times higher inside than out for males, and 2.8 times higher for females. But the crabs didn’t just rebound inside the no-fishing zones. Starting in 1989, overall catches off Kyoto Prefecture began to gradually improve.

By then, Shimada says, the Kyoto crab fishermen were fully won over. Between 1988 and 2007 they voluntarily established another five protected areas in habitats where young crabs gathered, and expanded the first one, ultimately setting aside 4.4 percent of their fishing grounds. Catch, quality and profits continued to climb, albeit with some ups and downs.

This successful collaboration deepened trust between scientists and fishermen in Kyoto and smoothed the way for more innovative management measures, many aimed at reducing bycatch. Fishing in areas where the snow crabs lived was already prohibited in the autumn, but after research showed that the spring shrimp and flounder fisheries were capturing and killing large numbers of crabs, the fishermen established a spring closure as well. Then in 2003, the 15 Kyoto seiners began using an improved net designed at the Fisheries Technology Center to further reduce bycatch in the flounder fishery. The modified net scoops up both crabs and fish, but a panel of 24-inch mesh on the bottom allows crabs to escape while the fish swim along above them. In trials, 86 percent of crabs escaped from the improved net while only 26 percent of flounder were lost. The Kyoto fishermen also decided to entirely ban the harvest of soft-shell males starting in 2008 in order to ensure each crab is able to reproduce at least once.

Many of these initiatives have spread. As fishermen in neighboring prefectures saw what was happening in Kyoto, they decided to create their own sanctuaries. Nine sanctuaries were eventually established between Tottori and Hyogo prefectures, and 13 between Fukui and Ishikawa; starting in 2007, the national Fisheries Agency also established an additional 21, and has plans for 11 more. Small trawlers in Fukui now use the improved nets, as do several large boats in Hyogo and Tottori. And all prefectures bordering the western Sea of Japan have copied Kyoto’s seasonal bans on fishing in crab habitat during the crab off-season.

The Japanese central government has taken steps to protect snow crabs as well. Limits on the fishing season, number of boats, catch per trip and minimum carapace size have been in place since the mid-1960s. In 1997, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries also implemented a quota system under which stock sizes are monitored yearly, and this data, together with economic and social factors, is used to set maximum catch levels. But fisheries scientist Yuji Ueda says these rules can’t be credited for the stock’s rebound. 

“The impact of the fishermen’s own rules has likely been bigger,” says Ueda, a senior researcher at the Japanese Fisheries research and Education Agency who oversees assessment of the snow crab stock in the west Sea of Japan. The proof is in the timing: most of the government’s regulations were in place when the crash occurred, and the recovery began well before it implemented the quota system. What happened in between was that fishermen took independent action.

The way forward   

In 2008, after years of preparation, the Kyoto Danish Seine Fishing Federation announced that it had become the first organization in Asia to earn an eco-label from the Marine Stewardship Council, or MSC, a global non-profit that sets standards for sustainable fishing. The label was awarded for both its snow crab and flounder fisheries.

“It was big news in Japan,” says MSC Japan director Kozo Ishii. “It had a positive impact on other fisheries.” Today, three other Japanese fisheries have MSC certification, and many more are in pre-assessment. Several have been certified in China and Vietnam as well.

Once again, the willingness of Kyoto’s fishermen to innovate hinged on their strong relationship with local scientists. The initial idea came from Yamasaki, who heard about MSC when the program was just getting off the ground around 2000. He knew the process of proving the Kyoto fishery met MSC’s standards would be costly, and that being the first fishery in Asia to attempt certification would mean serving as a guinea pig for adapting a foreign process to Japanese laws, language, and culture. Nevertheless, he recommended that the fishermen take the gamble.

“Kyoto bottom trawlers were implementing all sorts of voluntary management measures, and by doing so they had restored the resource, but consumers didn’t realize that,” he says. “They wanted to communicate what they had done, and I thought MSC was a great tool for that. I also thought it would strengthen their commitment to continue those efforts into the future.”

He succeeded in winning their agreement. However, in 2013, the Federation abandoned the certification for snow crab, though it remains certified for flounder. The situation that led it to do so highlights the difficulty of achieving regional reform via the community-based management system that empowered them to innovate in the first place.   

The MSC requires yearly audits in order for fisheries to maintain their certification. During Kyoto’s 2013 audit, assessors pointed out a problem with the Japanese government’s management of snow crab stocks. Since 2006, the stock density of snow crabs in the western Sea of Japan had been gradually declining. However, while Kyoto fishermen had curtailed their fishing effort in response, the auditors pointed out that fishermen in other prefectures had increased their catch, and the government had even raised the catch quota for Kyoto in 2011 and 2012. Since all the crabs in the western Sea of Japan belong to a single stock, the assessors required the Kyoto fishermen take action to remedy this situation in order to help the stock continue recovering. The fishermen say they lacked the power to change government policy, and therefore decided to abandon their certification before MSC revoked it involuntarily. 

But what to make of the fact that stock density declined slightly from 2006 through 2013, and has flat-lined since then far below historic levels? Ueda suspects these trends stem from natural stock fluctuations related to water temperature, currents, and crab biology, rather than poor management practices.

“A lot is already being done to help the crabs. It would be difficult to do much more,” he says. “Everyone is protecting them because snow crabs are an extremely important resource. It’s not like one prefecture is doing a lot and another is doing nothing.”

Ueda sees little chance of another sudden crash like the one that occurred in the 1970s. Even Korea — which fishes on the north side of the Sea of Japan — has cracked down on illegal crab fishing lately, according to Makino. But because Kyoto’s management practices are mostly voluntary, they have not been adopted uniformly by all prefectures. The recent ban on catching soft-shell male crabs is a good example: Although Shimada and his colleagues have been lobbying their counterparts in other prefectures to put in place a similar ban, so far only fishermen in Ishikawa and a handful in Hyogo and Fukui have done so.

“Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t,” Ishii says of Japan’s decentralized management model. “The snow crab fishery is an example of the need for effective management by both the central government and the local governments.”

No matter what happens at the government level, however, the commitment of Kyoto crab fishermen like Shimada to continue building on 34 years of sustainable, science-based fishery management seems unlikely to waver.

“I’m getting older now, and what I feel is that I want to hand over an ocean to the next generation of fishermen that’s worth their while,” says Shimada. “I don’t just want to maintain what we have now. I want to leave them with more.”