Coastal communities and livelihoods in a changing world: A comparison of the fisheries and aquaculture sector in Matsushima Bay, Japan and the Salish Sea, Canada / USA



  • Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences, The University of Tokyo; Stockholm Resilience Centre


  • 19/02/2018

  • REGION :

  • Eastern Asia, Northern America


  • Japan, Canada/USA (Matsushima Bay, Japan and Salish Sea, Canada/USA)


  • The fisheries and aquaculture sector provides a broad range of nutritional and economic benefits that support the well-being of millions around the world. Many small-scale communities involved in fisheries and aquaculture are well-described by the concept of socio-ecological production landscapes and seascapes (SEPLS), where rich cultural traditions are inextricably linked with production activities and the management of surrounding ecosystems. Livelihoods in the sector are in a state of rapid change, as illustrated here by a study of coastal communities in the Matsushima Bay of Japan and the Salish Sea in Western Canada and the USA. In both regions, communities involved in this sector are rapidly shrinking and aging, and new entrants face similar barriers to getting started. Ecological and economic uncertainty, and the opportunities available in urban centers have caused many to leave the sector. Still others have sought to minimize risk through diversifying into other fisheries or other sectors, such as tourism. Depending on the priorities of local governments, communities and industry actors, a number of practical steps seem to be available to encourage new entrants into the sector, including through support mechanisms to lower initial entry costs. According to several respondents, however, people will follow their own impulses, and efforts to bind them or entice them into unpredictable livelihoods will falter. A cultural sense of obligation to continue the family business, or to maintain long-standing community traditions that are a source of local pride have also proven effective in some cases at sustaining communities.


  • Coastal communities; Livelihoods; New entrants; Uncertainty; Diversification


  • Akane Minohara (The University of Tokyo), Chris Cooling (independent researcher) and Robert Blasiak (The University of Tokyo and Stockholm Resilience Centre)

  • LINK:


Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.

Introduction: Global trends in livelihoods within the aquaculture and fisheries sector

[Note: This case study was first published in the Satoyama Initiative Thematic Review vol. 3]

People are attracted to a very romantic way of life. Being on the water. It’s very independent. Dependent on your knowledge and ability to learn […] and living with and working with a variety of similar independent-minded folks. Fishermen here are – like in most places where I’ve met them – generally pretty independent minds. They’re not all cut from the same cookie cutter.

The fisheries and aquaculture sector exists at the nexus of food security, livelihoods and human well-being, while in many areas constituting a crucial element of cultural heritage and community cohesion (Coulthard, Johnson & McGregor 2011; CBD 2011; Minohara & Blasiak 2015). In 2014, some 167.2 million tonnes of capture fisheries (inland and marine) and aquaculture products were produced globally (FAO 2016). More than 87% of this was directly used for human consumption, constituting 17% of the global population’s intake of animal protein (FAO 2016). Moreover, fish is a crucial source of micronutrients that provide rural populations in low-income food-deficit countries (LIFDCs) with key amino acids and fats needed for early-child development, and impacting lifelong health outcomes (Golden et al. 2016).

Globally, nearly 60 million people are engaged in capture fisheries and aquaculture activities, and an additional estimated 200 million people are employed in the processing, shipping and sale of associated products (FAO 2016; Teh & Sumaila 2013). Employment in the primary sector of capture fisheries and aquaculture, however, has followed starkly divergent trends in recent decades (Teh & Sumaila 2013). While employment in the aquaculture sector has roughly doubled in the 25 years from 1990 to 2014, employment in capture fisheries has been slowly rising in some parts of the world, while dropping in many of the world’s most industrialized countries (FAO 2016). From 2000-2014, for instance, the United States and Canada have seen a collective 6% decrease in fishers, while Asia has seen an 8% increase (FAO 2016).

Such trends reflect a number of broader global dynamics: increasing industrialization and efficiency within fishing fleets in highly industrialized countries, the demographic shift of people from rural to urban communities, depletion of some fish stocks, and increasingly risk-averse fishery management regimes in some parts of world (Costello et al. 2016; UN DESA 2014; Worm 2016). At the same time, aquaculture production has grown dramatically, particularly in East Asia, and is on track to soon outpace capture fisheries in terms of global production volumes, although the long-term sustainability of such trends is unclear (Naylor et al. 2000).

These global dynamics are having a substantial impact at the local level, and on socio-ecological production landscapes and seascapes (SEPLS), where communities share an inextricable cultural connection with the surrounding ecosystems upon which they depend for their livelihoods and well-being (Ichikawa, Blasiak & Takatsuki 2012). Yet monitoring, assessment and future projections of ecological changes have outpaced corresponding attention to changes in social and cultural systems (Blasiak et al. 2017). This study considers changing livelihoods and communities at the local level by comparing the fisheries and aquaculture sector in two areas: Matsushima Bay in northeastern Japan, and the Salish Sea, which extends across the Canadian and United States border on the western coast of North America. Drawing on in-depth interviews with people involved in the fisheries and aquaculture sector in both areas, a portrait is drawn of how communities have been evolving within a changing world. While the scope of this study is limited and it does not seek to catalogue all socio-ecological changes occurring in the two regions, it is indicative of how rapidly conditions are changing for these communities, and the potential for transnational sharing of innovations to common challenges.


This study primarily draws on the results of a series of in-depth interviews with stakeholders engaged in the fisheries and aquaculture sector in two areas: Matsushima Bay in Japan (see Section 3) and the Salish Sea, which extends across the western coast of Canada and the United States (see Section 4). Additional secondary material was collected from relevant publications of the governments of Canada and Japan, the research community, and United Nations agencies.

Selecting interview partners

The selection of respondents for this research was heavily dependent on previous personal connections by members of the research team with communities in each location. In the case of Matsushima Bay, members of the research team had previously been involved as participants and researchers in community dialogue sessions aimed at facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogue among residents and other external actors (Minohara & Blasiak 2015). Field visits from 2011-2017 provided a deep knowledge of community structures and potential respondents. A member of the research team also grew up in a small fishing community along the Salish Sea, and was able to draw on a network of contacts in the region. Following discussion within the research team about the research objective (identifying changes in livelihoods and communities in fishing communities), an initial set of individuals were contacted to seek interviews. A snowballing method was subsequently followed in which interview respondents suggested further relevant respondents, who were in turn contacted.

Conducting the interviews

Prior to conducting interviews, the research team prepared a template of broad questions and themes to address with respondents (Appendix 1). This template provided the basis for semi-structured interviews that would enable the identification of commonalities and differences among respondents and communities. In line with the principles of informed consent, all respondents were first informed of the purpose of the research, and the intended use of the collected information. Respondents were furthermore offered anonymity and the opportunity to read and comment on the draft manuscript prior to publication. Interviews were conducted by Skype and telephone by members of the research team. Due to a tight research timeframe, a total of nine interviews were conducted – four with respondents in the Salish Sea, and five with respondents in Matsushima Bay.

Assessment of interviews

After conducting interviews, the research team discussed the results and compiled a list of four primary themes that repeatedly emerged over the course of the interviews as representing crucial factors in shaping changes in livelihoods and communities in the two locations. This resulting typology encompassed: (1) incentives and barriers influencing movement into and out of the fisheries and aquaculture sector; (2) role of production activities in shaping community structures; (3) sources of uncertainty in fisheries and aquaculture sector; and (4) role of governance and regulations in shaping livelihoods within the fisheries and aquaculture sector. Interview transcripts were reviewed, and key quotes and insights from the respondents were classified according to this typology (see Section 5).

The aquaculture and fisheries sector in Matsushima Bay (Japan)

Matsushima Bay is located in Miyagi Prefecture, in northeastern Japan’s Tohoku region (Figure 1). As the name Matsushima (matsu = pine tree, shima = islands) implies, Matsushima Bay has long been famous for its scenic views, with 260 pine-clad islands of various sizes and shapes. Four of these islands are inhabited by a total of just over 350 residents (as of February 2017), and are known as the Urato Islands. Matsushima is known as one of the three most scenic spots in Japan (“nihon-sankei”), and also became the first bay in Japan to be designated as one of the “Most Beautiful Bays in the World” in 2013. The landscapes and seascapes forming Matsushima Bay have nurtured unique cultures and livelihoods since ancient times, and the area is protected by the Act on Protection of Cultural Properties.

Figure 1. Map of Matsushima Bay (Source: Google Map)

While tourism is a leading industry in the region, drawing nearly 8.4 million tourists from Japan and abroad in 2014 (Miyagi Prefecture 2016), the fisheries and aquaculture sector has played a key role in forming the socio-ecological production landscapes and seascapes (SEPLS) around Matsushima Bay for thousands of years. Archaeological excavations have uncovered about 70 shell mounds, and a number of pottery shards from the early Jomon period (around 4,000 B.C.) were excavated around the bay. This suggests that some 6,000 years ago the region was already home to satoumi communities, where people caught available fish and shellfish, many of which are still commonly consumed in the region, including oysters and clams (Okumatsushima Jomon-mura History Museum 2002). Some of the pottery demonstrated that a salt-making culture had been developed at this point as well.

The shallow and calm waters of Matsushima Bay have allowed people to make their livelihoods from farming oysters and seaweed, and this has played a considerable role in shaping the SEPLS of the bay. Oyster farming in Matsushima Bay began in pre-modern times, and its history can be traced back as far as the late 17th century (Miyagi Prefecture 1994). Seaweed (nori and wakame) aquaculture started more recently after World War II (Miyagi Prefecture 1993 and 1995). Oysters and seaweed (nori) produced in this region are both considered among the highest quality in Japan. While products from Matsushima Bay are currently sold in the domestic market, the bay was once tightly connected with international markets. In the mid-20th century, large quantities of seed oysters were exported to the US and France, until the oil shock of the late 1970s caused these exports to end (Miyagi Prefecture 1994).

A variety of fish are caught in the bay by small-scale fishers. Matsushima Bay also provides rich grounds for eelgrass (amamo), which is often referred to as “a cradle of the sea” as it provides spawning grounds as well as habitats for juvenile fish. The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 2011 severely affected the ecosystems of Matsushima Bay. The unprecedented tsunami not only washed away houses, aquaculture facilities and boats, but also uprooted eelgrass, resulting in ecological changes to the marine environment. Yet, continued efforts by local people and a variety of stakeholders, combined with the resilience of nature, have resulted in the fisheries and aquaculture sector rebounding, leading one oyster farmer to proudly state that “since Matsushima Bay contains a lot of high quality seaweed and makes a good ‘soup’, oysters grown inside the bay (naiwan) are so tasty!”

Figure 2. Satoumi landscape in Matsushima Bay (Photo: Akane Minohara)

The aquaculture and fisheries sector in the Salish Sea (Canada/USA)

Named in honor of the region’s first inhabitants, the Salish Sea encompasses the bi-national marine waters of British Columbia’s Strait of Georgia and Washington’s Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca. The region is dotted with islands encompassing a complex ecological system of coastal waterways. It is among the largest and most biodiverse inland seas and fisheries in the world (PBI 2017). The nutrient-rich marine system has supported First Nations peoples for thousands of years, resulting in these aboriginal coastal communities forming close cultural connections with the SEPLS of the Salish Sea. For post-settlement communities, socio-cultural connections extend back over 150 years and have helped define the economic well-being and social fabric of the entire region. Today, on both sides of the international border, nearly eight million people live in the mainland watersheds and islands that sustain the Salish Sea.

The Pacific Northwest coastal fishery is known around the world for its legendary salmon runs, as well as for herring, halibut, hake, sea urchin, crab and shellfish. These fisheries have been an extremely important and valuable resource for coastal communities whose economies are partially dependent on fishing and whose identity and culture are directly linked to fishing. Today, the national government is almost entirely responsible for fisheries access and allocation in British Columbia, and recent years have seen many changes that are impacting local fishing communities and fundamentally altering the nature of the fisheries and associated livelihoods, particularly among the smaller coastal communities in the Georgia Strait (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Map of Salish Sea (Source: Google Map)

In the Strait of Georgia, salmon, the traditional economic driver of the fisheries, has seen significant decreases in catch rates, particularly among the Chinook and Coho. A variety of factors have been suggested as contributing to the drop in return rates of wild Pacific salmon, including impacts of climate change, ecosystem mismanagement (Evenden 2004) and the rapid growth of aquaculture along the north coast. The economic and social impacts of the introduction of individual transferable quota systems, a form of privatization of the fisheries in the 1990s, also affected the maritime cultural landscape of the region, making it more difficult for small subsistence fishers to survive. The consolidation of quotas and licenses, along with their soaring value, made entry into the fisheries sector an increasingly capital-intensive proposition, and encouraged the movement and consolidation of activities from rural coastal communities to urban centers; vessel ownership has likewise shifted from individuals to large companies. As one respondent explained, “In the mid-1980s, there were around 21,000 fishermen along our coast – there’s now close to 6,000 fishermen. The number who are viable is probably closer to 2,000.”

The region’s fisheries are now increasingly functioning in an integrated globalized business environment, strongly influenced by international market forces. Some sectors of the fisheries have benefited from tighter regulation and international markets, particularly the well-managed geoduck and prawn fisheries. Prawn fishing in particular still retains strong family connections. While sustainable management is an important achievement, concerns remain in some cases about the sharing of benefits from resource exploitation, particularly for proximate communities.

The cultural and economic connection of coastal communities to the sea has shaped the region, but it is unclear whether fisheries will remain a meaningful and sustainable source of employment in the region over the longer term, or which cultural connections will endure. As one respondent emphasized:

The average age of fishermen across British Columbia is 62. The average age of skippers is 68. And we have people doing commercial fishing into their 90s in the communities here. It’s certainly an aging fleet that we have. The number of youths who are getting into it is very small. The future of those communities and the culture and way of life associated with fishing is vastly shrinking.

Or as another respondent explained, when asked to give a prediction of what the next 50 years hold for fisheries and aquaculture in British Columbia: “Oh, that’s impossible to say…”

Figure 4. Commercial fishing boats along the British Columbia coast (Photo: Chris Cooling)

Results and Discussion

Incentives and barriers influencing movement into and out of the fisheries and aquaculture sector

Considerable overlap seems to exist in both of the regions with regard to the drivers of people leaving the fisheries and aquaculture sector as well as the barriers facing new entrants. One common aspect was perhaps best summarized by a respondent from Canada: “Young people, young people… well they have other things to do!” Indeed, both Canadian and Japanese fishing communities are characterized by a rapidly aging and shrinking population of people engaged in fisheries and aquaculture activities. Age and health concerns are causing many older participants to ultimately leave the industry, while a range of barriers face new entrants.

Across Japan, entry into fisheries is limited by the allocation of fishery rights and fishery licenses by national and local governments. In the case of coastal fisheries, fishery rights are managed by fishery cooperatives, and only those who meet certain conditions, such as being local residents and engaging in fishing for a minimum number of working days, can be considered for membership to participate in fisheries and aquaculture activities in the respective coastal waters. In this sense, after entering the sector, the individual becomes de facto bound to one landscape/seascape (SEPLS) for as long as they continue such activities. This explains why – aside from a few new entrants – the vast majority of people engaged in this sector in Japan have been engaged in fisheries and aquaculture for generations. Likewise, limitations exist for Canadian fisheries, and a finite number of licenses exists for certain fisheries. This challenge of securing a license in attractive or saturated fisheries constitutes one of the first challenges facing new entrants seeking to join the groups. Acquiring annual lease rights is also not cheap, and some new entrants pay up to 80% of the value of their landings just to cover this cost.

In addition, high initial investment costs set the bar high for those who wish to become fishers. A respondent who moved to an island in Matsushima Bay in 2016 explained that it would have been impossible for him to start seaweed farming if the company had not provided him with a boat and other necessary equipment and facilities. Such barriers were clear across both regions, with some groups facing particular challenges, as one respondent from Canada explained:

It’s not easy for aboriginal people to borrow money. [In the past] banks didn’t [consider] fishermen as good sources to invest in. It’s only been in the last couple of years that banks actually have really stepped up to the plate to fund fishermen in acquiring licenses. You had to have cash to buy licenses before.

While such dynamics limit people’s movement into the industry, some people are drawn to the idea of a life by the sea, and to a closer connection with nature. This connection with nature, however, was perceived by respondents in Japan and Canada as a source of uncertainty and a source of bounty. One respondent from Canada, for instance, explained that, “People are attracted to a very romantic way of life. Being on the water. It’s very independent.” While another noted that life in such areas is not for everyone: “Fishing is a hard life and the millennial age is not necessarily geared for being away from home and the hard work that it takes to be a fisherman […] the comforts of home are not there.” A Japanese respondent noted that “dealing with nature” involves certain risks and uncertainty, and, “Even you invest 100, you don’t always get 100 back. You are dealing with nature, so it doesn’t always result in production, but you always learn from it.” Another respondent from one of the Urato Islands in Matsushima Bay, who realized a childhood dream of becoming a seaweed farmer, explained how he likes “the rhythm of the island”. Despite the hard work, especially during the cold winter time, he emphasized the sense of accomplishment in living as a seaweed farmer.

Entry into the sector has been eased by some formal types of assistance that have contributed to changing the landscape of fishing communities. In British Columbia, for example, initiatives have been taken to bring young fishers together to discuss and share their experiences, and to identify barriers and seek pathways to addressing them. In Japan, a government-led initiative was launched with the aim of making it possible for young people to transition from urban to rural areas to help revitalize communities. This initiative was used by the young seaweed farmer mentioned above, who was able to move to an island in Matsushima Bay and begin training as a seaweed farmer. In addition, all of the Japanese respondents emphasized the importance of a newly established “Stay Station” for islanders (Figure 5). This accommodation allows outsiders to actually “live” on the island, which would otherwise be a substantial challenge due to the ban on people not already living on the island buying land or building new houses (as the islands are protected by the Act on Protection of Cultural Properties). A local NGO consisting of young people who became involved in the reconstruction activities soon after the 2011 tsunami played a significant role in this case, acting as a mediator between local people and local governments. Without their efforts, it would have been difficult to deliver the local voice to the city government and identify local needs.

Figure 5. Stay Station: The building was previously an elementary school and was used as the main evacuation center following the tsunami in 2011 (Photo: Akane Minohara)

Role of production activities in shaping community structures

Although the communities in both Canada and Japan have undergone considerable change in recent decades, these changes have taken different forms. In Canada, all of the respondents could recall a time when fisheries along the coast were characterized by larger fleet sizes, higher fishing volumes, and a greater range of associated processing activities.

You would see a harbour full of fishermen, but now you see a handful of boats. In every community it’s like that, the fleet is becoming smaller and smaller […] some of it is industrialization, bigger boats, packer freezer boats out doing larger scale dragging but for the most part it’s been about access and entry.

Industry consolidation has likewise reshaped many of the small communities along the coast that had previously been predominantly dependent on fisheries. As one respondent noted: “In our outlying communities, there’s very few people left for the fishing industry. It’s more or less centralized itself in Vancouver.” At the same time that the fishing industry has become more consolidated, coastal communities have grown more diverse:

The communities on the coast are very small. They’ve now all gone to tourism and recreational fishing and everything else. The competition for the fish is a good part of some of its problem. Places that were in the fishing industry – they’ve now gone to […] they can’t fish on the coast anymore. […] Those days have gone with the dinosaur.

Even for those who have remained in the fishery sector, fishing has become more of a “business” and less of a “community-oriented thing”. At the same time, respondents felt that the ethnic and cultural dynamics within the sector had been changing with “new immigrants [replacing] generational Canadians”, although noting that Canada’s national history has long been characterized by successive waves of immigration. Moreover, some parts of the sector in Canada have grown increasingly connected to markets and economies outside the region, including the geoduck fisheries, which export primarily to markets in East Asia.

In Japan, due to the fishery right system for coastal fisheries and aquaculture, fishers’ movement is more restricted and place-bound, with Matsushima Bay being no exception. Traditionally, the eldest son was expected to take over the family business, with fishery rights being passed down through generations. Shared connections fostered by fisheries and aquaculture activities have generated a strong sense of community that extends between the islanders themselves and to the surrounding landscapes and seascapes. During one field visit, a member of the research team encountered an old lady standing at a port waiting for her husband, who is over 80, to return from the sea with some breakfast. Similarly, a group of elderly men on Nonoshima Island still continue to farm oysters, proudly nurturing a tradition dating back to the 17th century in a place known as the regional origin of oyster farming. A strong historical and spiritual linkage also exists, extending from the mountain to the sea. Fishers from islands in Matsushima Bay would embark on pilgrimages to sacred mountains in Yamagata Prefecture to express gratitude for the year’s good harvest, and their hopes of bounty in the coming year. Although this tradition is no longer practiced, stone monuments in a local shrine still serve as a record of past pilgrimages (Figure 6).

Sources of uncertainty in the fisheries and aquaculture sector

High levels of uncertainty are one aspect of fisheries that renders management and planning decisions more challenging than other types of production activities. When it comes to the ocean, even fishers with a great depth of local experiences never gain control over nature. During the interviews, a variety of challenges related to ecological, social and regulatory uncertainty were raised by respondents in both countries.

Environmental changes, including degradation of ocean ecosystems, ocean acidification, rising sea temperatures and climate change were mentioned by several respondents as long-term changes creating uncertainty that influences their planning and management decisions. One respondent from Matsushima Bay, who is now in his late 50s, described how when he was a child, there used to be rich tuna stocks “just around the corner”. At that time, he explained, the tuna fishery, without any sophisticated boats or equipment, brought a great deal of wealth to the island (Figure 7). However, when a large industrial port was constructed nearby in the late 1960s, the stock disappeared.

Figure 7. Abundant tuna stocks around Matsushima Bay in the 1960s (Photo: Mrs. Takeyo Utsumi)

In Canada, fears of similar stock collapses have generated highly risk-averse management strategies and quotas:

When you’re fishing salmon years ago, you used to harvest those fish runs up to around 75 or 80 percent. Now you’re down around 20 […] because the fish stocks aren’t in good shape.

Some changes have occurred on a much shorter time scale. Aquaculture and certain types of fisheries like set-net fisheries are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, such as tsunamis and typhoons, as they cannot be easily moved on short notice. Some respondents pointed to fluctuations in catch and harvest levels driving the decisions of some people to leave the sector. Those who remain have frequently developed coping strategies to deal with uncertainty. For example, in Matsushima Bay, it is common for people to switch their primary livelihoods. Over the last few decades, for example, production activities have changed dramatically from traditional oyster farming combined with a seasonal tuna fishery. This was followed by a subsequent transition to seaweed farming when this grew more lucrative, and then to a partial return to oyster farming due to a spread of disease and increase in oil prices and mechanization in the 1970s.

A key strategy for coping with uncertainty in both regions has been the diversification of livelihoods. One respondent from an island in Matsushima Bay stressed that “diversification of risk […] changing your mindset […] not sticking to conventional ways and thoughts” are the keys to adapting to a changing environment and increasing resilience. Throughout his life, he has been involved in a variety of activities, including small-scale fisheries, harvesting clams and providing tourists with marine recreation opportunities. Today, he owns a guesthouse and works as an oyster famer. He also continues exploring better ways and techniques for fishing, which are not costly but “utilizing what they have” (Figure 8). On the Canadian side, First Nations communities have found success with operating traditional lodges that focus on cultural practices related to the sea. Visitors can participate in spiritual ceremonies connected to the Salish Sea and build stronger emotional ties to the region.

Figure 8. A handmade floating lamp to attract more Icefish (Salangidae), using empty coffee can and battery (Photo: Akane Minohara)

The speed and scale of changes impacting the fisheries and aquaculture sector proved to be a rich topic for discussion among respondents. Yet regardless of the uncertainty caused by changes in the natural, economic and social conditions, one factor remained constant, as captured by one respondent:

The ecosystem needs to be in balance [..] our ocean health has got to be our number one priority, it isn’t an ocean we have total control over.

Figure 9. Salmon stocks have proven particularly challenging to manage due to high year-to-year variability in return rates (Photo: Chris Cooling)

Role of governance and regulations in shaping livelihoods within the fisheries and aquaculture sector

Over the last 20 years, we’ve had both ecological changes and policy changes that have divorced people from the industry.

The management of a public resource, like the Salish Sea, involves a complex and constantly evolving dialogue due to the wide variety of stakeholders, including First Nations communities, industrial fishing, and small-scale coastal fishers. One key change came primarily in the 1990s with the introduction of catch shares by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). While one hope of the policy was that it would not only result in more sustainable fisheries management, but would also benefit small-scale fishers and communities, respondents noted that the consolidation of the quota system had largely divorced the fishing fleet from a direct geographic connection to the resource, with management decisions being made in urban centers like Vancouver. In some cases, local communities were seeing few benefits from rich fisheries resources in their immediate vicinity, and had little role in stewardship of these resources. One result of increased consolidation within the industry was that it raised barriers to new entrants. The high cost of quotas as well as initial start-up costs have made it very difficult for (young) people to enter the industry, and have contributed along with other social factors listed in the previous sections to an aging population of fishers.

Many fishers who acquired quota when the system was introduced have continued to retain their quotas in retirement and now lease them to the highest bidder. Some fishing enterprises have sought to purchase these, reduce operating costs by “stacking” the quotas onto a few vessels and pressuring fishermen to supply them with fish at low cost. This in turn places additional pressure on small–scale fishers, who are already struggling to remain profitable.

Regulatory limitations on licenses, however, can also provide a foundation for sustainable practices. Two of the respondents, for instance, are currently employed in the geoduck fishery and have benefited from the limited licensing. This fishery has succeeded, in part, due to a shift to new global markets in China and efforts to add value to the product (developing processes to sell live geoduck as opposed to processed).

It’s an export market orientated fishery, and it was limited entry for a long time, only 55 licenses, so it’s a small very well-managed fishery.

The geoduck fishery is also characterized by concerted efforts to invest in market research and strictly monitor its environmental impact. Part of the fishery’s success is also attributable to an agreement among the fishers to accept identical quotas, making it possible to shift focus from competition among fishermen to competition in the market place. This approach is the result of progressive thinking within the industry combined with effective co-management policies in the association.

In 2007, the DFO launched the Pacific Integrated Commercial Fisheries Initiative (PICFI) with a focus on environmentally sustainable and economically viable commercial fisheries with First Nations. Conservation is one of the main priorities under the initiative, but its success remains difficult to assess. Another key component of this policy is the retirement of existing quotas and allocation of this access to native communities to increase participation in the commercial fishery. There is also an attempt to improve transparency within the fishery all the way from harvest to consumer and to add value to the product along this chain. One respondent pointed to the recent acquisition of St. Jean’s cannery in the Nanaimo area of Georgia Strait as a good example of a sustainable community-owned and operated enterprise. Stronger co-management practices with industry and government, and First Nations, are also crucial for the long-term success of this policy.

In Japan, it is common for small-scale coastal fishers to pass “rights to fish” from generation to generation, yet Japanese respondents also emphasized that financial issues have become a significant barrier for new entrants, and that government as well as community support is essential. They stressed how the “Stay Station” (see Section 5.1) and financial support provided by the local government for those who wish to become fishers or oyster/seaweed farmers in the Urato Islands have opened up new opportunities for the future of the island and new energy to break through various problems such as an aging and declining population, and lack of young successors. If a person wants to settle in a SEPLS, as one respondent put it:

There must be something which keeps you there, giving you a sense of satisfaction, while at the same time, it must also give you enough to support yourself.

A clear commonality throughout the interviews was that respondents felt the government can, and indeed must, play an active role in supporting the management of marine resources as well as the people working in this sector. The range of economic and financial pressures as well as the inherent uncertainty linked to livelihoods directly dependent on natural systems means that a continued role for small coastal communities in the fisheries and aquaculture sector in highly-industrialized countries like Japan and Canada is tied not only to somewhat intangible social factors (e.g. sense of pride, familial obligation, longing to work in more natural settings), but also to a range of highly tangible factors (e.g. availability of licenses, equipment costs, market access) (Figure 10). While a government or community may struggle to influence these social factors, a variety of actions can be taken to ease movement into the sector, and to reduce the vulnerability of traditional or small-scale actors.

Figure 10. Factors (re-)shaping the fisheries sectors in Matsushima Bay and the Salish Sea


Even in the age of technology you are isolated and kids don’t want to be out of range of their cell tower.

Our social systems are in as much change – if not more – as our ecological systems. […] Our knowledge and data on both are changing. We have much more data now on our ecosystems than we had 10 years ago.

Livelihoods and social systems dependent on the fisheries and aquaculture sector are inextricably linked with marine ecosystems. Although extensive monitoring and data collection as well as the application of precautionary approaches to management decisions are key elements to ensuring that livelihoods are sustainable, nature remains unpredictable. People and their driving impulses also remain unpredictable in many cases. As one respondent noted, “Most [young people] can’t wait to get out of rural places!” Yet for others, an emotional longing for a stronger connection to nature or for a more independent lifestyle drives them to enter the sector. Still others feel an obligation or desire to continue the family business or maintain proud cultural traditions.

Across both of the regions considered in this study, such dynamics were apparent. Additionally, small communities that were once largely self-sufficient are now culturally and economically linked with surrounding areas, and international markets, creating new opportunities and challenges. A common theme throughout the research, however, was that these external pressures and the inherent uncertainty of natural and social systems can be mitigated in a variety of practical manners. Barriers to new entrants can be eased through community, industry, or government support; ecosystem monitoring and participatory decision-making processes can contribute to effective management practices; and specialization in high-risk production or harvesting activities can be mitigated through diversification. Communities in both study locations are in a state of rapid change. But recognizing that communities are the result of constantly shifting social, ecological and economic dynamics, change is to be expected.


We would like to first and foremost thank the people interviewed for this research, who generously shared their time and insights. Without their readiness to discuss these topics, this research would not have been possible. This research was supported, in part, by Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Kakenhi Grant 16K18743.


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Appendix 1: Guiding questions/themes for semi-structured interviews

Introductory statement:

  • Who we are (fisheries researchers based in Yokohama and at the University of Tokyo)
  • What we’re doing (research on dynamics of livelihoods in fishing communities).
  • Why we are doing this research (contribute to a United Nations University publication on livelihoods in “socio-ecological production landscapes and seascapes” – i.e. places where people share strong cultural linkages with their surrounding landscapes/seascapes through sustainably managing their resources)
  • How we will use interview data (can be anonymous or attributed depending on their preference – will be used for open-source research publication by the United Nations University)

Guiding questions/themes:

  • General introductory question: Tell us about how you became involved in the fishing industry and your current work/job.
  • How has the fishing community changed since you starting working in it?
  • Based on your experience, has the number of young people engaged in the sector been generally increasing or decreasing?
  • What are the main reasons for (young) people to leave the fisheries sector or decide not to enter it?
  • What are the most attractive aspects of the fisheries sector? (i.e. what draws people in?)
  • What forms of support exist for people who want to become fishers / aquaculturalists in your community?
  • What barriers exist to people who want to become fishers / aquaculturalists in your community?
  • What do you see as the long-term future of the fisheries/ aquaculture in your community?
  • About family (whether his/her parents were/still are involved in fisheries/aquaculture)
  • If born into a fisher’s family, whether he/she had other choices than becoming fishers
  • Whether they have successors (his/her own child or other young people)
  • If they have children, whether they want them to become fishers/aquaculturalists too
  • What changes have you seen in the local fisheries with regards to licensing, government regulations, environmental change, catch volume, markets, etc.?
  • As a fisher or aquaculturalist, what changes have you witnessed regarding young people entering the industry, economic viability, relationships with the community and others in the sector?