Photo/IllutrationA saury fishing boat similar in size to the capsized No. 65 Keiei Maru at Hanasaki Port in Nemuro on Sept. 20. The boat is installed with many poles containing fish-attracting lamps. (Minami Endo)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

A record-poor catch of saury in waters close to Hokkaido forced a Japanese fishing boat to venture far out to sea in search of the seasonal specialty with deadly consequences.

The No. 65 Keiei Maru, a 29-ton vessel, was discovered capsized on Sept. 18, hundreds of kilometers from its usual fishing grounds.

Toshihiro Keirei, 52, the captain of the vessel, was confirmed dead on Sept. 21 after he was found inside the boat on Sept. 18. The remaining seven crew members are still missing.

The Japan Coast Guard called off its search for the rest of the crew on Sept. 21.

All the crew members are from Hokkaido. The boat belonged to the fishermen’s cooperative in Taiki, a coastal town in southern Hokkaido.

The Keiei Maru was apparently ill-equipped to fish in the open sea, where waters are often rough. In addition, its crew members did not have much experience in fishing in the rougher waters there.

But the Keiei Maru was apparently forced to search for new fishing grounds as catches of saury, which can fetch high prices in autumn, had been so dismal in previous outings this season.

The Keiei Maru lost contact with local fishermen after its crew reported that the boat had been hit by high waves on the morning of Sept. 17.

It was the vessel's fourth outing this season.

In its first and second outing, the vessel worked its usual fishing grounds in waters around the islands known as the Northern Territories, just northeast off Nemuro on Hokkaido.

But the catches were poor there.

In its third attempt, the vessel traveled as far as to waters in the high seas, beyond Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone, also resulting in a dismal haul.

In the last outing, the boat again headed for open waters, taking three days to get there after leaving Hanasaki Port in Nemuro.

The capsized vessel was discovered at a location about 610 kilometers east of Cape Nosappu on eastern Hokkaido.

The boat is believed to have sailed out as far as about 1,000 km from the cape since it was returning to Hokkaido when it was hit by the high wave.

An official with the Taiki fishermen’s cooperative said in some cases, fishermen have no choice but to sail long distances in pursuit of the fish when catches in coastal waters are poor.

According to the Tokyo-based Japan Fisheries Information Service Center, saury hauls at Hanasaki Port totaled 1,800 tons or so between Aug. 1 and Sept. 10, about 20 percent of the haul over the same period in 2018.

The poor catches are blamed on rising seawater temperatures off the Japanese coast and overfishing by large fishing vessels from China and Taiwan.

An official with the Hokkaido government’s fishing management section predicted that this year’s saury catch is certain to set a record low if the current pace continues, since there have been no sighting of shoals of the fish in waters around the Northern Territories.

In the face of poor saury hauls, some fishing boats began catching Japanese sardines instead as they could expect to haul them in large numbers this year.

But Japanese sardines fall way below saury in profitability. As a result, many vessels still went out after saury and ventured into the high seas where they are not accustomed to fishing.

Fisheries experts said the No. 65 Keiei Maru, a midsize vessel, was at high risk when fishing in the open ocean, compared with larger boats.

Saury fishing boats usually set up a number of tall poles with fish-attracting lamps. However, the set-up raises the vessel's center of gravity, making it more vulnerable to strong winds and when hit broadside by high waves.

When the Keiei Maru was discovered, its hold was almost empty, meaning that it was possibly more susceptible to capsizing from lateral waves.

Tsuruyuki Hansaku, president of a fisheries company which is acquainted with the Keiei Maru crew, called for measures by the central government to support fishermen in the event of extraordinary poor hauls.

“This is the first time I've experienced such a poor catch,” said Hansaku, 76. “There is nothing we in the primary industry can do when we are put in that situation. The central government should consider support measures.”