10:17 3 March 2017
FEATURE: Fishermen on Japan's Oma coast dream of hitting tuna jackpot
By Haruna Usui
AOMORI, Japan, March 3, Kyodo
Oma on the northernmost tip of Japan's largest main island is known throughout the country for top-quality bluefin tuna that can command prices in the tens of millions of yen.
In the fishing town with a population of 5,600 on the Shimokita Peninsula in Aomori, about 100 fishermen hunt a tuna jackpot. However, only a few of them can make a living catching just "Oma maguro" (tuna), known as "black diamond" for its value and body color.
Oma maguro came under the spotlight again at the first auction of this year at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo in January. A 212-kilogram tuna fetched 74.20 million yen ($650,000).
While the price, the second-highest for a single tuna on record, reflected the celebratory New Year mood, similar-sized Oma maguro still usually sell for several million yen each.
Like the all-time record holder, which fetched an eye-popping 155.40 million yen in 2013, this year's headline-grabbing tuna was caught in the Tsugaru Strait between Honshu and the northernmost main island of Hokkaido and landed at Oma.
Fishermen from other towns also catch tuna in the strait, but they are not called Oma maguro when brought to their home ports. Oma brand tuna are priced some 20 percent higher than those tuna.
The trend is attributable to the "strong (Oma) brand," a Tsukiji market official said.
Oma maguro have long been sold to high-end Japanese restaurants. In addition, Oma has become a national brand thanks to the 1983 movie "Gyoei no Mure (The Catch)" featuring tuna fishermen in the town.
The local fisheries cooperative has also contributed to the reinforcement of the Oma brand, devising methods of maintaining the freshness of the fish, such as removing blood and nerves immediately after they are hauled in.
The brand has also been strengthened by Oma fishermen regularly appearing on prime-time television documentaries.
Masahiro Takeuchi, a 65-year-old long-line fisherman, caught the 74.20 million yen tuna and is one of the few who have been exceptionally successful. "I thought it would get a high price because of its shape and fat," he said. Local fishermen use "haenawa" long-line fishing or "ippon-zuri" single-hook hand-line fishing methods to catch tuna.
If a tuna sells for 70 million yen, the catcher earns more than 30 million yen after the deduction of transport costs, fees to a fisheries cooperative and other concerns and tax payments.
The fishing season for tuna in the narrow Tsugaru Strait extends from July to January when the predatory fish come to the passage to chase squid.
Takeuchi caught roughly 100 tuna, including a 300-kg fish, in the just-ended season. "I will rest and relax until the next season," he said.
Contrary to Takeuchi's fortune, most Oma tuna fishermen cannot afford the big boats needed to operate in stormy waters and some catch only two to three tuna per fishing season. To make a living, they set out to sea almost year-round to catch squid and octopus that are steadily available, but which do not draw the big bucks.
In spite of the harsh reality, however, they take aim at the "cash cow" during the tuna fishing season.
"Even if I cannot catch a lot, I continue to sail out to the sea," a squid fisherman in his 40s said. "You can dream of hitting the jackpot when you catch a big one."