Sanriku Coast Oysters


Japan's oyster farmers find pearls in their future

Yasutaka Kanno's oyster business collapsed after the March 11, 2011, quake and tsunami wiped away his oyster farm in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.

“It was a really hard time. We thought about quitting many times,” Kanno said, “but we couldn't do anything else.”

In the first year after the tsunami, the sales volume at his company, Moriya Suisan Co., plunged to less than 10 percent of the total from a year before.

But he held on and in the second year sales came back to about 30 percent of the pre-tsunami level.

His rebound wouldn't have occurred without the support of iLink Inc., an online oyster retailer. The company, established in 2000, gave donations such as the ropes to which oysters are attached in the farms and boat parts.

“It wasn't just Tohoku oyster farmers that I wanted to help,” said Hiroaki Saito, president of iLink. “Miyagi Prefecture is the source of 80 percent of juvenile oysters transported to and used by oyster farms across Japan and thus saving Tohoku meant saving Japan's oyster industry.”

The ropes, floats and other goods essential for oyster farming were donated to a total of 383 farmers, he said. He persuaded a maker of oyster-farming ropes in Aichi Prefecture and many other places across the nation to look for various goods to donate, Saito added.

Also, iLink, which takes orders via its website and online shopping sites and delivers oysters direct from farmers across Japan to customers, prioritized the sale of Tohoku oysters on its site.

The number of oyster farmers in Tohoku that iLink buys from is now 11, up from six before the tsunami. The corresponding number of farmers across the nation on iLink is now 38, up from 30.

On March 26, 2011, just two weeks after the massive tsunami, Saito began an oyster-ownership business in which Customers contribute ¥10,000 yen (about $104) to become stakeholders in Tohoku oyster farms selected by iLink. In return, they receive about 20 "recovery" oysters. This system has helped oyster farmers continue their business.

Saito collected ¥300 million (about $312 million) during 2011 from 24,000 people, he said. Oysters began being delivered to some of these customers in May 2012, he added.

French help

In the summer of 2011, a representative of a French nonprofit organization who read an English article about Saito visited him to say that the French oyster industry was ready to donate ropes and many other oyster-farming goods.

Saito was not entirely surprised by the offer because the Tohoku oyster industry provided juvenile oysters to French farmers in the 1970s when French oysters were endangered due to disease.

“All French oyster farmers know about this. Nearly 90 percent of oysters in France must be descendents of Tohoku oysters,” Saito said.

Juvenile oysters in Tohoku are wanted from many oyster farmers because they are strong, Saito said.

Miyagi and Hiroshima prefectures are the only two prefectures where juvenile oysters are used by farmers in Japan because no other prefecture has places where oysters get out of seawater in low tide, Saito said.

In addition, Miyagi is cold and has much snow, toughening juvenile oysters even more while killing off the weak ones, he said.

The coastal Tohoku areas also have forests nearby, which give nutrition to the surrounding waters.

Saito added that he went to oyster farms in Australia, France, Vietnam and other countries and realized that the Tohoku's Pacific coast has the best conditions in the world for the development of hardy juvenile oysters.

Saito has also established a new company, Wagaki Co., with a group of young Tohoku oyster farmers. The company has started producing in-shell oysters in the French style for domestic consumption, with an eye to introducing them abroad.

Future vision

After the tsunami, Saito began making sales pitches in Asia. His iLink oysters have sold in Vietnam, where he built a restaurant serving barbecued oysters in Ho Chi Minh City. He would like to further expand the overseas business.

This fall, he is planning to hold an international oyster festival in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, and wants to make it an annual event.

“I went to Ireland last year and attended the Galway International Oyster and Seafood Festival. It has over 50 years of history, a shell-opening contest and other fun events. Japan doesn't have this and I thought, I want to do it,” he said.

“In 20 years, I want people in the world to come to Sanriku (Tohoku coastal area) to enjoy the beautiful scenery and eat tasty oysters,” he said.

Produced by The Japan Times