Setting Nets on Troubled Waters: Environment, Economics, and Autonomy Among Nori Cultivating Households in a Japanese Fishing Cooperative

Alyne Elizabeth Delaney

PhD Thesis 2003

Fishing Cooperative Associations (FCA) members in Tohoku, Japan cultivate nori seaweed for the personal autonomy and quality of life this maritime-based occupation provides. However, their fishing territories are severely degraded, their occupational income is unpredictable, and their production expenses remain high. Given such uncertainties, more than 85% of the peak FCA nori growers' population made the rational choice (in neoclassical economic terms), to quit nori cultivation. The remaining members made the rational choice (in substantivist terms), to continue this way of life in large part because it enables them to "not lower their heads" and "make decisions themselves." Results are based on 18 months of research in Shichigahama, Miyagi Prefecture, using ethnographic interviews, participant observation, archival research, and demographic survey.

All Japanese maritime resources are managed under a common property regime. Therefore, FCA members cannot grow their nori elsewhere when their fishing territiories become degraded, except by personal agreement with other fisherfolk. Research revealed Shichigahama FCA members do in fact use their social networks to gain access to fishing territories outside of their communties. They rent and barter for access to healthy fishing territories and show a partiality for friendship and horizontal relations over kinship and hierarchical ones. By "helping on another out" with exchanges to fishing ground areas, Japanese fisherfolk are able to continue working on their own, rather than resorting to wage labor and endangering their autonomy.

Common property theorists often cite Japan as a useful example for developing common property institutions elsewhere, yet there is little ethnographic information available on the local fishing cooperatives that actually manage this common property. This case study of a Japanese fishing cooperative and its nori cultivators, through its consideration of harmful marine pollution, economic instability, technology change, social networking, and autonomy, is important for understanding the live of the Japanese who continue this way of life. The adaptability, flexibility, and individual decision-making shown by these men and women are crucial for understanding the management of marine resources at the local level.