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Steeped in history: Insights into Japan’s coastal pole-and-line tuna fishery

Adam Baske reports back from a visit to Kochi where he met local one-by-one tuna champions and learned about the value of this historic fishery.
Katsuo no tatake © IPNLF

Two hours by plane southwest of Tokyo lies Kochi prefecture – a region of 700,000 people and famous for beautiful rivers, citrus farming and katsuo no tataki (flame-seared skipjack tuna). It’s also the centre of Japan’s coastal pole-and-line tuna fishing culture.

In Kochi city, I marvel at the amount of artwork in front of the restaurants depicting skipjack tuna and the pole-and-line fishermen. Skipjack statues, paintings and pictures decorate local storefronts. I even find a pole-and-line brand of sake! Local shops carry an array of products too – smoked skipjack, bonito flakes, skipjack-flavoured peanuts, not to mention stuffed toys in the shape of tuna.

I meet Taichi Takeuchi, whose family owns the local katsuobushi factory which produces the smoked and dried skipjack that’s the basis for broths in an array of cuisines. I learn all about the process, which, from fishing to final product, takes about five months and is an art in itself. The best part is sampling the rich, smokey katsuobushi flakes.

Next stop is the town of Nakatosa where the history of pole-and-line fishing dates back more than 600 years. Pole-and-line vessels in the port are busy preparing for the skipjack fishing season, which typically starts in mid-March. I get a tour of one of the vessels and am impressed by the sleek design and efficient layout. Most vessels take a one or two day trip before off-loading their catches to the local auction. There, fishmongers from all over the prefecture battle over the fresh skipjack to serve up as katsuo no tatake – this ensures the fishermen get a good price.

The next day, I get to meet the Kochi Sustainable Skipjack Association (KSSA). This passionate group of business leaders, politicians and academics came together to protect and promote the katsuo culture. In a short amount of time, they have been very successful in rallying support for their cause in Kochi and beyond. Their annual skipjack tuna festival attracts over 15,000 people from all over Japan every spring. A critical element of this effort is also about working with fisheries managers to make sure the skipjack population remains healthy and sufficiently abundant to protect this vibrant culture.  

Overall, the visit to Kochi offered inspiring glimpses into the importance of the Japanese pole-and-line fishery. Here, the fishery has a special place in the local economy, cuisine and culture. I am hopeful that IPNLF will be able to work with stakeholders in Japan in the near future, and that we can collectively promote and protect these fisheries, and the important role they play in Japanese culture.