The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and devastating tsunami that followed destroyed many lives, with at least 15,897 casualties and around 2,500 people declared missing.
Communities were also affected, including that of the oyster farmers in Shizugawa Bay in the Miyagi Prefecture. Oysters had been farmed in the area for over a century and had survived previous tsunamis, but in 2011 most of the aquaculture facilities were destroyed, the farmers’ homes were destroyed, and lives were lost. It wasn’t clear if farming would continue, and many longstanding farmers understandably felt unable to return.
However, for the remaining farmers from the Miyagi Prefecture Fisheries, the destruction of the tsunami brought into focus the importance of thinking about future generations, and they decided to use the opportunity to look at their farming practices.
With help from WWF Japan and a government grant, the cooperative entered a three-year pilot programme to promote more environmentally sustainable and responsible practices.
One big change made was to reduce the number of farming rafts. There were more than 1,000 rafts before the 2011 tsunami, and productivity and growth rate was often poor. As part of the pilot programme, the cooperative reduced the farming density to around 300 rafts, managed by 32 farmers. This improved productivity and encouraged oysters workers to maintain their income and have more time free for other things they valued and lowering the risks associated with potential future natural disasters.
After completing the pilot programme, the cooperative wanted to demonstrate the important changes they had implemented to make their practices more responsible and future-focused. With help from WWF Japan, they applied for ASC certification, and in 2016, just five years after the tsunami, they became the first ASC certified farm in Japan.
Access to new retailers
The achievement meant that the cooperative attracted attention from the media, retailers and processors. The ASC label allows the farmers to sell their oysters under the Togura brand name, to major retailers like AEON and Ito-Yokado, as well as Coop and Daichi-wo-Mamoru-kai, Japan’s largest organic distributor as more and more retailers decide to stock ASC products.
Following certifications, sales revenue of Togura oysters increased faster than those for oysters from other areas, and income increased 150% over pre-tsunami levels. farmers a sense of achievement and pride, enabling them to demonstrate the hard work they have put in to improve their practices against such tough odds.
Inspiring a new generation
Another real and tangible benefit, thanks to the cooperative’s increased pride in its products and farming practices, is helping to encourage younger farmers to join what was previously an ageing workforce.
As Satoshi Maekawa from WWF Japan explains: “The inspiring story of ASC certification encourages greater pride in oyster production, and the age composition of the farmers is shifting as the farmers’ sons and daughters and other younger people join the cooperative.”
Improving quality, reducing working hours
The benefit of ASC can vary from farm to farm. Some cannot always be quantified but can be just as important, such as allowing an inspiring cooperative to show the wider world that they have improved their farming practices in a way the has future generations firmly in mind. Fujio Abe, 56, is a director of Shizugawa Branch of Miyagi Fishery Cooperative and has worked at the cooperative since 1972.
“In the wake of the earthquake, we aimed to break away from overcrowding and shift to aquaculture that does not impose a burden on nature. Applying for ASC certification enabled us to see if this effort worked,” he said. “I think the biggest change we experienced, is that the transformation to responsible aquaculture and acquisition of the ASC certification, has increased income by improving quality, reduced working hours and helped to attract new farmers into the profession.”