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Sport Fishing Sustainability in Japan

On March 2, 2013
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Two years ago I spent 2 months in the small mountain village of Maze, Japan. I was seeking to learn all I could about tenkara in what could be considered the cradle of this method of fishing. Stories of my visit to Japan (and anything Japan related) can be found here.  But, I was often disheartened by the unsustainable approach to sport fishing in most streams and rivers in Japan.

Streams and rivers in Japan are treated as put-and-take fisheries, where the cost of the fishing license for a particular stream is often compared to the cost of fish in the market and seen as a cost to be recouped by keeping as many fish as will pay for the license. This is obviously not sustainable, as it was made clear when we had to load buckets of fish onto a section of the Maze river (Mazegawa) in preparation for a fishing class.

Tenkara fishing sustainability in Japan

I have taken it on as a side project to inspire change in the way Japan thinks about its rivers in a modern society. I feel indebted to the Maze village and the Mazegawa, where I was hosted with open arms for 2 months. That is where I’m starting. I can can see there is a very long road ahead, and this will be a lifelong project, but I was encouraged when I was asked to write for the local newspaper what my thoughts for the Mazegawa were. It was published a few weeks ago and I just received my copy with “Part 1″ of a series of articles I plan . I’ll share the article I wrote below.

Openly voicing my views and suggestions on how to improve on the Mazegawa didn’t necessarily make me any friends when I was visiting. I was invited to local government meetings to discuss opportunities for developing tourism in the area. In these meetings I tried my best at being diplomatic and not too direct, but as a good westerner I did voice my thoughts.

When I shared my experience that the Mazegawa was one of the most beautiful rivers in the world but it had not fish, and suggested that a section of it be made strictly Catch and Release, the responses were not all that warm. Most of the responses I got were “it is a part of Japanese culture to keep fish”, which I had to call bull&#!~ (I didn’t say that out loud). It is a part of every culture and simply human instinct to want to keep any fish that we catch. It is part of the culture where I grew up, and it is part of the American gene too. However, culture changes with time and when there is a need to do so. Catch and Release was not the norm in America, but a movement that gained momentum in the 1970s helped it become a bigger part of the angler culture here.  Perhaps the lack of buy-in was because the owners of the fish hatcheries (private businesses which sold fish to the river management) were often also present in the meetings, and are an integral part of the local political makeup. However, I see it as a duty to voice practical and politically viable suggestions on things that seem very obvious to me but need full local support.

My suggestion to them is simple, take advantage of a river that is absolutely perfect for sport fishing and turn that from a supermarket into a resource for sport-fishing. In a country where hundreds of gorgeous streams are managed individually, and each one of them is doing the same exact thing (namely, buying fish from a farm, putting them into the stream they manage, and waiting for visiting guests to come and take the fish out), it should be easy to stand out of the pack. A Catch and Release stream in Japan would immediately be a “Purple Cow” and attract fishermen from all over Japan and the world, which is one of the main stated goals of each fishery. As for the hatcheries, what about selling fresh fish to the angler that is visiting? And, while they are it, sell some souvenirs too. Or, sell the fish to the river co-op that is not doing the same, as the Itoshiro hatchery has been doing with success.

On my next article I’ll be writing a relatively specific plan, primarily based on the suggestion of turning a portion of the river into a C&R section. If anyone has any points that I should bring up on my next article, perhaps an example of a river in the US that became famous when better managed or turned into C&R only, or other stories, that would be awesome.


The Most Beautiful River in the World

Mazegawa –  Sport Fishing Opportunities. PART 1

I have never seen a river as beautiful as the Mazegawa. Twenty-eight kilometers, and every kilometer is different – fast and narrow in one area, deep pools a kilometer downstream, slower and wider another kilometer away. The Mazegawa also has areas that are difficult to access and which hold treasures such as waterfalls, and perhaps even a fish.

The variety of water found on the Maze makes it the most interesting river in the world. It is a true playground to a certain type of people: the sport fishermen, the person who travels everywhere to catch fish, for fun.

Don’t ask me why some people, including me, like fishing so much. We, sport fishermen, spend lots of money on equipment, travel great distances, and spend a lot of time on the water to have fun fishing for Iwana, Amago and Yamame.  But, I can guarantee you we do not do it because we need to eat – it is much cheaper and convenient to go to a store and buy food.  It is irrational and I can not explain why we like fishing so much even if we don’t need to take fish home, but I can tell you I have created a very successful business in the United States selling equipment to the sport fishermen who, after catching their fish, release them. And I know enough fishermen in the USA and throughout Japan to tell you that sport fishermen do not need to take fish home to be happy.

The Mazegawa is a river where you can not come visit only once, or for one weekend. With the variety of water available for fishing, anyone who likes fishing has to return.  But, unfortunately beauty and variety are not the only thing fishermen need, fishermen need fish.

“The Mazegawa is the most beautiful river. But, there are no fish.”

In 2010, I visited Maze for my first time. My teacher brought me here to show me  what could be his favorite fishing area. But, he warned me: it is a beautiful river, but the fishing is not so good.

Before visiting the Mazegawa we spent 3 days fishing his favorite area, the Itoshiro river. The Itoshiro river, also in Gifu, became a “Catch-and-Release” river in 2002. Ever since it has attracted people from all over Japan because there are a lot of fish. AND, the co-op that manages the Itoshiro has not needed to put any fish in there for the last 10 years! All fish are born on the river, the local fish farms sell their fish to other areas and to businesses nearby.

The Mazegawa is a treasure. It is a resource that could be more valuable than gold. It could easily become a “destination-river”, a river where people fly from all over the world to visit.  The only thing missing is fish.

For the next newsletter I will write more about easy ways to make the Mazegawa be the best fishing destination in the world. But, for now I’d like to ask you to think about these 3 things:

1)   Past: If you like fishing and are over 40 years old, think about how the fishing was when you were growing up and how much easier it was to catch fish.

2)   Present/Sustainability: it is simple math; if people take more fish than are born, there will never be enough.

3)   Future: I met several young kids in Maze who like fishing, but they can not catch many fish. Kyosuke, one of the kids there, even likes tenkara. If you are a fisherman, next time you go fishing, think about putting some of the fish you catch back in the water so that Kyosuke can catch it when he gets older.


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10 Responses to Sport Fishing Sustainability in Japan

  1. Corbin Haugen says:

    Wow… large undertaking! I commend you for your efforts. Let me/us know if there is anything the tenkara/flyfishing community can contribute to help out

  2. Matt (statikpunk) Donovan says:

    I think this might be quite a task for you Daniel, heck I know older people here in the US that think its pointless to go fishing if you cant keep the fish! :) Im not sure exactly how it works over there but maybe setting apropriate limits on fish (maybe they already do) would be a good middle ground to start with, and would allow the idea of C&R to become more acceptable.
    I do have a question though. if all the rivers are basically put and take fisheries, then what keeps them from just putting in enough fish to handle the amount of fishermen? would it make the liscences too expensive? or maybe the rivers can not handle enough fish to accomodate the amount taken out?

    • Matt, indeed I know it will be difficult.
      Fish limits are the biggest thing I was pushing for. There is no reason for someone to keep 20 fish.

      As for why they can’t stock enough, mainly I believe it’s a budget thing. And I’m afraid there will never be enough. If a lot of fish are stocked at once, a lot of anglers may learn of it and come fish and take fish away. By stocking a bit at a time that may be reduced slightly. Also, the cost of the license would have to be super high to satisfy the appetite. Definitely not sustainable.

  3. Matt (statikpunk) Donovan says:

    wow! yeah it sounds like the big task is going to be changing the Japanese mind “culturaly” it sounds like many people fish as a form of sustenance as opposed to “just for fun” my local favorite tenkara stream has a limit of 10 per day , and I have never even come close to taking that many home, (even though I catch plenty) because I mostly fish for fun, at the most I may drag home 2 or 3 for the frying pan. I think if everyone actually took home their 10 everytime they fished, my home water would be looking just as bad.
    just a little brainstorming here and playing devils advocate for the maze here. but since each stream system in Japan is basically its own private enterprise, and since many Japanese fish for food, wouldn’t imposing reasonable limits have the possibility of reducing the tourism to the river? I think in that instance maybe your idea for the C&R only section would be better for the Maze, that way they could market it as “the C&R section for fun and the other sections for food” of course reasonable limits would still have to be part of that. I dont know, thats gonna’ be a tough nut to crack. :)

    • Matt,
      Indeed the main fear they have is that turning it into a C&R area would diminish tourism, exactly for the reason you mention.
      My argument to them is to not try catering to all anglers, as a matter of fact ignore those people (at least on part of the river) who just want to come and take the resources away. I think it would be more valuable to focus on the growing number of sport anglers who really just want to go somewhere pretty and catch a lot of fish, for fun. These anglers would likely bring more money to the area anyways. I like to think it should be about the quality of the client, not just the numbers. Plus, the number of people in Japan who would love to catch a lot of fish, but are only given the same option (poor fisheries) is probably large enough to fill the stream.

  4. Mark Cole says:

    Sounds like a great idea to me. A point in favor of catch and release fishing is that the size of the fish caught will increase. This is a great attraction for for many western anglers. Do the Japanese have a similar interest in large fish?

    A question that I have, not knowing the waters, are they capable of supporting a sustainable fishery? Is there sufficient bug life and other forage. What is the water quality and flow rates? Is there overwintering habitat? Sufficient cover? Lack of any one of these critical factors can doom a stream to remain a put and take fishery.

    Remember that catch and release fishing in the US is relatively a new idea. Trout Unlimited and Lee Wulff initiated the idea in the 1950’s. To paraphrase Lee ” a game fish is too valuable to be caught only one.”

    I think this is something that could catch on in Japan.

    Good luck Daniel.

    • Thank you Mark.
      I have no doubts the streams there, and the river I’m interested in beginning with, would have no problem sustaining a very healthy population of wild fish. Good bug life, great terrain and great cover.
      Thanks for the points you mention on fish size and Lee’s quote. I will use that.

  5. Rob Worthing says:


    We have had a few rounds of C&R conversations with out Japanese friends via email. One of the interesting points that came to light was a possible misunderstanding about what C&R entailed.

    Our Japanese friends shared with us their belief that to eat the fish was to honor the fish. They did not see honor in putting the fish back after hooking and handling it.

    I replied that there was much more to C&R than simply putting the fish back in the water. Like all things, it can be done poorly, or it can be done well. Doing it well requires foresight and thought. It also requires a knowledge of fish. This certainly honors the fish.


  6. Paul Gaskell says:

    Hi Daniel, a fantastic undertaking and one that is (of course) very much in line with my day job for the trout conservation charity that I work for in the UK. A couple of things that might help the cause are the number of cases where reducing stocking (and increasing the amount of catch and release practiced) significantly increases the average rod catches (in terms of numbers of fish). Secondly, where C&R becomes the great majority practice there are figures to show both an increase in numbers as well as upper sizes of fish (e.g. Scotland’s river Annan). Finally, the setting up of a limited number of “stocked” reaches where some fish can be retained for the table – whilst establishing large “wild reserve” areas that are unstocked and C&R only is a great way to convince fishery managers of the benefits of C&R – whilst not incurring the feared reduction in trade that completely ceasing stocking is sometimes assumed to cause.

  7. Stan Wright says:

    We face the same thing here in Hawaii… exactly the same thing. While hosting a TV fishing show 30 years ago we released some fish on camera. After all the hate letters, phone calls, and yes, even death threats, the TV station said if we wanted to practice catch and release that was fine… just don’t show it on the show.

    No, 30 something years later, local TV shows regularly show C&R. People are participating in tagging programs and kids … and a few adults, release fish. Something I never thought I would see in my lifetime here in Hawaii. ( I’m still working on a Saltwater Fishing License )

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