Many alternative energy sources like wind turbines and solar panels experience problems in cold weather.
Japan Turns to Technology to Lift Fishing Industry
OTOSHIBE, Japan — The Shinei Maru No. 66 looks like the dozens of other fishing boats moored in this Japanese harbor. But its builders say it is the world’s first hybrid fishing trawler. By switching between oil and electric-powered propulsion, it uses up to a third less fuel than conventional boats.
“It’s like a Prius for the sea,” said Tadatoshi Ikeuchi, 62, the boat’s owner and captain.
Until very recently, commercial fishermen around the world have been laboring under the weight of high fuel prices. In Europe earlier this year, fishermen expressed their frustration by blockading ports to protest prices and taxes. In the United States, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, the former Republican vice presidential nominee, has called for low-interest loans to help Alaskan fishermen buy fuel-efficient engines.
Japan, meanwhile, is searching for high-tech solutions. In fact, the hybrid boat engine, which is still just a prototype, is part of a multimillion-dollar government-led effort to rescue Japan’s fishing industry from rising energy costs, which are likely to return to rise again once the global recession ends and demand comes back.
As part of the two-year-old program, the Japanese are also testing biofuel-powered marine engines, computer-engineered propeller designs and low-energy LED lights on squid boats, which use bright lights to lure their catch.
There is a vast international market for such solutions. Many Japanese boat engines that use computers to raise fuel efficiency are already popular among American fishermen. And Yamanaka, the Tokyo-based maker of the hybrid engine for the trawler, which is called the Fish Eco, says the United States and Europe are large potential markets.
Japan’s agriculture and fisheries ministry, which has led development of the new technologies, will subsidize their introduction as part of a $700 million aid package announced in July to help the fishing industry.
Modernization of this most ancient of professions seems the natural answer here to the commercial fishing crisis, which predates the run-up (and recent fall) in fuel prices. Japan gave the world both sushi and the hybrid car. But fishermen say they doubt the effort will be enough to break the deep sense of malaise that has started to afflict fishing communities like this one in northern Japan.
After decades of sending its fleets to the far corners of the globe, and paying top yen for tuna and other premium fish for sashimi in global markets, Japan appears to many to be letting its fishing industry sink. The number of commercial fishermen has shrunk by 27 percent in the last decade, to 204,330 last year, hurt by declining birthrates and migration of young people to the cities, according to the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, an industry group representing fishermen.
The federation warns that rising fuel costs could force an additional 25,000 to 45,000 fishermen to hang up their nets. Before the recent fall in prices, boat fuel, known as heavy fuel oil, was accounting for about 20 to 30 percent of a fisherman’s total costs in Japan, almost double its proportion three years ago.
They cannot pass the increase on to consumers in the form of higher seafood prices for fear of losing sales to cheaper imports from Asian competitors, like China and Vietnam.
They also worry that higher seafood prices would only worsen the shift in Japanese consumer tastes away from a traditional seafood-centered diet — a trend known as “sakana banare,” or flight from fish.
“Higher fish prices will just encourage Japanese to eat more hamburgers and fried chicken,” said Nobuhiro Nagaya, a managing director at the fisheries federation.
American fishermen make similar complaints. They say they cannot raise prices because consumers can easily defect to cheaper chicken, pork and beef. Mr. Nagaya and others here admit their fears may seem overblown to Americans, considering that the average Japanese still eats about 94 grams (3.3 ounces) of fish a day, five times the amount consumed by the average American.
Still, gloomy sentiment about the future of Japan’s industry are shared by officials at the agriculture and fisheries ministry.
While their multimillion-dollar projects recall the government-orchestrated technology drives of previous decades, when Japan rose to global dominance in industries like semiconductors and supercomputers, officials express far more modest expectations today in an era of tight budgets and limited economic growth.
“Technology cannot be the only answer,” said Kazuo Hiraishi, an assistant chief in the ministry’s maritime technology research division. “But Japan’s excellence in electronics and energy-saving should be of some help to our fishermen.”
While fishermen in countries like France, Spain and Ireland have staged disruptive demonstrations, protests in Japan have been more sedate, though still large. Last summer some 200,000 fishing boats stayed in port on a one-day strike, and thousands of fishermen gathered for a peaceful rally in Tokyo.
The government responded two weeks later with the $700 million aid package that promised to pay 90 percent of fuel price increases since December, but only to fishermen who found ways to reduce their consumption. The package also contained subsidies to help fishermen buy efficient new engines, like the hybrid.
A $250,000 subsidy from the agriculture ministry, for example, meant that Mr. Ikeuchi, the hybrid boat’s captain, paid only $650,000 for the trawler, the same price as a conventional boat.
Mr. Ikeuchi said his fuel use had dropped to about 75 gallons a day, cutting his daily bill by about $100.
The propulsion system switches between a 650-horsepower heavy oil motor, which powers the main engine, and a 150-horsepower heavy oil motor, which turns a generator that runs a smaller electric engine for use when the boat moves slowly.
When Mr. Ikeuchi showed off the boat, which he uses to hunt for scallops, Pacific cod and kelp, the only visible difference with other boats in this small, man-made harbor was its dashboard, with small touch-controlled screens — high-tech devices for a craft made mostly of traditional-looking wood and steel.Still, many fishermen who walked over to take a peek at the boat doubted it would be enough to save their industry.