Stardust ‘sakura’ shrimp: a great niche product managed by a local Japanese cooperative

Since I had never heard of stardust ‘sakura’ shrimp (Sergia Lucens), was curious to learn more about fisheries cooperatives in the Japanese context, and wanted to do a field trip that would take me from Mount Fuji to the coast, I joined other IASCP 2013 participants on this field trip to Sugura Bay.  What we saw was super impressive from a commons organizing perspective.

Globally two stardust shrimp fisheries exist: one in Taiwan, mainly for the ornamental fish trade, and a larger stardust shrimp fishery at Suruga Bay.  The Japanese fishery is known throughout Japan, with people coming from all over the country to buy and eat these tiny shrimp.  Stardust shrimp, with their spectacular dusting of bright red spots, have a jaw-to-tail length of four to five centimeters and a lifespan of 15 months.  They spend their days floating at a depth of 200 m, aggregating around dusk and ascending towards the surface.  Fishers, using a pair-boat trawl net, fish in the early evening hours.

Stardust shrimp, freshly caught.

Stardust shrimp, freshly caught.

The fishery began in 1894 when several mackerel fishers caught the stardust shrimp in their by-catch.  Although a ‘race to catch the last fish’ mentality ensued, with time local fishers were keenly aware of decreases in catch levels and market fluctuations, particularly when the markets were flooded with stardust shrimp.  In 1968 a co-management cooperative body was established to include three local fishing associations: by the late 1970’s fishing effort coordination coupled with a pooling arrangement system had emerged for the stardust shrimp in Sagura Bay.  This is known to be one of Japan’s most successful fishing cooperatives (Uchida and Baba 2008).

What, then, makes this system work?  A key feature of the stardust shrimp fishery is the flat benefit sharing system strictly followed by all members of the cooperative.  The total harvest of the stardust shrimp is divided into equal pools based on consistent rules followed by the 120 vessels (60 paired boats, since the vessels go out in pairs with a trawl between them) that fish in 60 designated areas.  A fishing committee decides annual harvest goals, does daily monitoring of catch, determines fishers’ fishing grounds, and carefully follows the market price for the stardust shrimp.  Total landed volume is closely controlled.  Limits have been placed on both boat and net size, and on the fishing season itself (there are two openings, with significant time for stock recovery in between).

The benefit sharing arrangements are purposely flat.  Vessel owners and crew members get a slightly higher share for boat maintenance and labour costs and then after common costs are deducted – a 5 % fee goes to the co-op and fuel – the remaining revenue is distributed back to each member equally.  Note that there are more members in the cooperative than there are fishers, and more fishing boats than needed for any one day, which makes this sharing system even more interesting.  In this arrangement, there is no incentive to fish more than someone else since you will not get paid more.  At the same time, peer pressure ensures that people maintain their boats and do their share of fishing, and that a free rider mentality does not ensue.  This process ensures the welfare of all cooperative members.  The social scientist in me is super curious to further explore this, and the Yui Fishing Association (one of the three fisheries associations that form the co-op) members’ admitted that most people were skeptical when they heard about their benefit sharing system.  Except for minor quibbles fishers’ felt that this system was working well (see Uchida and Baba 2008 for more details on the benefit sharing system).

Income from this fishery is not enough for fishers to make a living:  many fishers also fish for white bait, horse mackerel, cutlass fish or young sardines, or do construction work and other off-season jobs.  Still, the fishery is profitable.  In 2012, the Yui Fishers’ Association net profit was $USD 20,077, which was significantly down compared with 2007 profits of $USD 52,821.  Fishers link the decrease in profit to stock declines, since the market price is relatively stable, and suspect the 2011 tsunami and climate variation to be having an impact.

Fishing boats, fit between roads and hills.

Fishing boats, fit between roads and hills.

In 2009, the Stardust Shrimp Two-boat Seine Fishery was granted Japan’s Marine Eco-Label (www.melj.jp).  This certification helps the co-op to further market and brand their product.  The Yui Fishers Association, as an example, have an on-site store that sells the stardust shrimp in many forms: frozen, kettle fried, in sausage form; and also sells seaweed and other aquatic products.  They also completed new port facilities for the stardust shrimp in 2012 which include a state of the art processing plant, ice making facilities, a cooking demonstration room and a conference room to host guests and school children.

There are reasons why this system is successful: entry is limited by a license system administered by the prefectural government; the stock is confined to Sugura Bay; and fishers have exclusive access to this resource.  This fishery is a de facto monopoly.  Fishers here have twin objectives: maintaining shrimp prices and resource conservation.  And, this particular cooperative is well connected, with members sitting on the national cooperative board.  This is an example of a flexible governance system with local leadership that responds to resource and market conditions.

Yet, even with this success, questions do remain.  There may be an effort challenge since stocks appear to be declining in recent years and the only way to reduce license holders is through attrition.  From a resource conservation perspective it might be important to further limit the number of boats entering the fishery each year.  How this might be negotiated and what this might mean for cooperative members is unclear.

For more information see: Uchida, H. and Baba, O.  2008.  Fishery management and the pooling arrangement in the Sakuraebi Fishery in Japan.  In: Townsend, R. and Shotton, R. Case studies in fisheries self-governance.  FAO Fisheries Technical Paper, No. 504.  Or visit the Yui Fisheries Association website: www.jf-net.ne.jp/soyuikougyokyo.

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