Photo/IllutrationFloodgates fall into the sea to close Isahaya Bay, Nagasaki Prefecture, on April 14, 1997. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion

The Supreme Court has rejected demands to open floodgates in Isahaya Bay in Nagasaki Prefecture, dealing a double blow to fishermen in a sea of litigation over livelihoods in the area.

The decisions by the top court’s second petty bench were dated June 26, and they upheld two lower court rulings that said the floodgates should remain closed, as sought by farmers there.

However, another lawsuit over the issue has not been finalized. The second petty bench is expected to hold a hearing for this case in July.

The Supreme Court’s decisions were its first in a series of court battles.

The government, led by the Liberal Democratic Party, in 1989 started the project to close off the bay in the Sea of Ariake with a 7-kilometer-long dike consisting of floodgates. The government’s plan was to prevent damage from flooding and to secure farmland.

After the floodgates were dropped into the sea in April 1997, reclaimed land and a freshwater pond were created in the closed-off area. The cost of the project totaled 253.3 billion yen ($2.4 billion).

However, fishermen sought studies on the effects of opening the floodgates, saying their operations became sluggish after the bay area was cut off.

But farmers argued that opening the gates would ruin the freshwater pond and cause salt damage to their farmland.

The standoff led to legal action taken by all three sides: fishermen, farmers and the government.

In 2002, fishermen filed a lawsuit with the Saga District Court, which later ordered the government to open the floodgates. The Fukuoka High Court in 2010 upheld that order, which became final because the government, then led by the Democratic Party of Japan, did not appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

A different group of fishermen filed a similar lawsuit against the government with the Nagasaki District Court in 2008. However, the district court and a high court rejected their request to open the floodgates. The plaintiffs appealed the ruling to the top court.

In 2011, farmers went on the offensive, filing a lawsuit against the DPJ-led government with the Nagasaki District Court and seeking a provisional injunction against opening the floodgates based on the Fukuoka High Court’s 2010 finalized ruling.

The injunction was approved in 2013.

So the government was caught between a ruling demanding the floodgates be opened and an injunction that effectively kept them shut.

The LDP in late 2012 regained control over the government and filed its own lawsuit in 2014. It objected to the 2010 finalized ruling and called on the fishermen to drop their demands for the government to open the floodgates.

The government lost the case in a district court ruling. However, upon appeal, the Fukuoka High Court sided with the government in 2018, effectively nullifying the 2010 finalized ruling that had been issued by the same court.

Fishermen appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

The Nagasaki District Court in 2017 also sided with the farmers in their lawsuit filed in 2011 and ruled against opening the floodgates. The LDP-led government did not appeal the decision.

But fishermen, dissatisfied with the government’s inaction, demanded that their arguments be heard in the farmers’ lawsuit. However, the second petty bench rejected that request, cementing the win for the farmers.

As for the 2008 lawsuit, the second petty bench turned down the appeal from the fishermen by supporting the rulings of the district court and the high court to keep the floodgates closed.

The second petty bench did not provide detailed reasons for either decision.

“(The decisions) are cruel for fishermen amid the sharp decreases in catches and the kinds of fish that can be caught,” said Masaaki Matsumoto, 67, a fisherman in Shimabara, Nagasaki Prefecture, who was a plaintiff in the lawsuit that won the 2010 finalized ruling. “We wanted (Supreme Court) justices to see the reality.”

On the other hand, Teiji Mizugashira, 70, a farmer in Isahaya, Nagasaki Prefecture, who has been cultivating vegetables on the reclaimed land, applauded the decisions.

“If floodgates are opened, it will become impossible for us to use freshwater,” he said. “Unless there is freshwater, we cannot grow farm products.”

The Supreme Court on July 26 plans to hear arguments in the lawsuit filed by the government in 2014.