OKINAWA, JAPAN: JAPAN’S SHARK EXTERMINATION PROGRAM

For the fishermen that spend their day toiling off the coast of Okinawa, the sea is a turbulent provider. It gives them their livelihoods. For many it is all they have ever known. Their fathers and grandfathers fished the same waters, from the same vessels, long before they took up the profession.

The fishermen have a deep-rooted love and appreciation for the ocean and the Bream, Snapper and Jobfish it provides. But they have to contend with unpredictable conditions. Sometimes they will return empty-handed. The ocean does not always provide.

The fishermen are not just battling the elements and the fish. In Japan they have another rival. As the fishermen pull in their lines, they have to contend with the ocean’s dominant predator. Tiger sharks and Sandbar Sharks wreak havoc on the fishermen’s catches, returning many of their catches with chunks missing, or only returning the head, leaving them unsuitable for sale.

In an effort to reduce the impact the sharks have on their livelihoods; the government allows the fishermen to take up harpoons and spears every summer fight back against the sharks for control over the seas. During these periods of extermination, the fishermen can kill 80 to 100 sharks, some of which can reach 500kg in size.

At 5.40 am, a group of fishermen prepare to embark on a journey to the open ocean. This time, their catch isn’t the Queen Snapper that fetch a good price on the Japanese fish market, they are looking for sharks. The captain will choose the location, which this morning will be an area off the coast of Ishigaki Island. The skies are clear, and the sun has already come up, casting a golden light over the harbour.

The men settle in for the journey over to Ishigaki. Some are reading the newspaper, the Japanese characters neatly aligned in vertical rows, others are looking out pensively at the horizon, but there is little chatter. The men casted their lines the previous morning. They are returning to the area to pull them in and see their catch.

Masakatsu Kadeshi, is one of the men on board. He is wearing a panama hat and shades to cover his eyes, making him look like a tourist on a luxury fishing charter. He laments the limited window the fishermen have to hunt sharks. “It’s performed once a year,” he said, “we can only catch some of them. We can’t get rid of all the sharks.” He believes the efforts are futile. Sharks are keenly aware of their territory, and even once they catch the sharks in this area, others will move in and claim it in a matter of weeks.

As the men wind the lines in, a fisherman eagerly shows the shark’s handiwork. One line has been severed, with the hook and bait nowhere to be seen, the shark has likely swallowed its prize whole, hook and all.

Suddenly a shadow in the water twitches enough to catch everyone’s eye and the men excitedly begin chattering. “It’s still alive”, one of them exclaims. One man prepares the spear, while another pulls the line in. The shark, a Tiger shark of around three metres in length, is quickly brought in boat side.

Suddenly the man with the spear carefully and forcefully brings the heavy point down onto the soft, fleshy mass at the back of the shark’s head. Immediately the water turns a deep shade of crimson and the shark’s tail whips the water violently.

He pulls the spear back, lining it up for a second strike. Again, his aim is true, and the water turns a deeper shade of red. After the third strike, the shark rolls onto its back, exposing its porcelain-coloured underbelly, which now becomes the fisherman’s primary target, and he repeatedly plunges the spear into the soft flesh under the shark’s mouth.

After another four strikes the shark’s lifeless body stops moving. “One down”, exclaims the beaming spear-wielding fisherman. One less shark to threaten the fishermen’s catches.

The men produce a hook and haul the shark onto the deck, its blood quickly staining the boat’s immaculate varnish. Once safely ashore, the shark is weighed and measured, its fins are removed, and its body is cut into segments and bagged, ready to be sent to universities for research purposes. There they will measure the pollution content in the shark’s liver, and the shark’s maturity and growth.

As the extermination period draws to a close, the numbers are tallied. It has been a good season. In two days the local fishermen have exterminated 109 sharks. The men are satisfied and toast their success.

A fisherman offers his take on the extermination. “We want to get rid of even just a few of the obstacles in our life. That is what this project is for.” The fishermen cannot control how much fish the ocean yields, but they can control shark populations and prevent them stealing their catch. Their biannual extermination is just that; a drive to control one variable in an industry that is largely dictated by variables out of mortal control.

 

Featured image from Flickr by gadgetdude

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