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Fishermen of Sado Island

7 a.m., Japan time. A storm system is moving into Sado Island, Niigata, making the skies gray and heavy. By noon, the islanders anticipate heavy rains and winds; some worry that the ferry to the mainland will be canceled. The Sea of Japan can be volatile at times, but for the Sadoan fishermen it is business as usual. The auction is underway at the fish market.

There are rows of fish — sardines, snapper, sole, mackerel and a variety of shellfish sorted in plastic boxes. Fish dealers, men and women, have gathered to scrutinize the offerings from the sea. “The catch is small today because of bad weather,” Tadashi Hirahara, my guide from the Sado Tourism Association warned me as we joined the scene. The Ishiharas, the husband and wife wholesale fish traders, are in full auction mode, talking on their cell phones to the various dealers nationwide. A majestic 47 kilograms (103 pounds) swordfish, too large to fit in a box, lies bare on the concrete floor. “It cannot always be about making a profit. We try to keep the price of fish stable,” says Kazuko Ishihara, “We don’t want to hurt the fisherman.”

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Sea of Japan from Sado Island. Sonoko Sakai.

Sado’s population of approximately 60,000, nearly 40 percent of whom are over age 60, has been slowly dwindling, and many young people are leaving to find work in the big cities. The shrinkage in population is particularly felt in the fishing industry, which employs nearly 2,000 Sadoans. The majority of these workers are older and must derive income from other sources to make ends meet. There are also fewer fish in the waters. “In the old days, we had so much fish, we didn’t know what to do with it,” says Ishihara. Tadashi Ishihara’s father was a letter carrier who gave free fish to people who lived in the hillsides. Then he drove a taxi, but continued to deliver fish. Later he went into the fish business, which is still in the family.

Sustainable fishing practices

Despite the ups and downs of the fishing industry, the sea surrounding Sado is still blessed with one of Japan’s richest selection of seafood -– tuna, yellowtail, mackerel, sardines, octopus, squid, shrimp. In winter, schools of yellowtail travel south from Hokkaido. Fall and winter storms can drive the yellowtail into the calmer and warmer inland waters of Ryotsu Bay, where the big fish forage on smaller fish.

“Most Sadoan fishermen do not own large fishing boats or go trawling through the deep seas in Viking mode,” says Hirahara. “Instead, they stake nets in the bay and let nature run its course.” In high season, between November and December, as much as 500 tons of yellowtail may be caught. A specimen weighing 10 kilograms (22 pounds) with a fat content of 15 percent is branded “Ichiban Kan Buri” or Number One Winter Yellowtail and commands a hefty price at the Tsukiji market in Tokyo. For the Sadoan fishermen, a good catch is a cause for great celebration, but they all seem to agree on one thing. “We have to respect the fish. It is our livelihood,” says Ishihara. “Sometimes a whale gets caught in the net. If it is alive, we let it go.”

Fishermen planting trees

In order to improve the fishing conditions in the Sea of Japan, temporary bans are sometimes placed on certain types of seafood, including shrimp and abalone. One popular environmental movement in the greater Niigata prefecture, which includes Sado, is for fishermen to plant trees in the forest. The trees help prevent erosion, which can cause pollution in the streams and rivers that flow into the waters where the Japanese ibis and oysters live. Environmental pollution has affected both species, driving the Japanese ibis toward extinction and depleting the population of the oysters. The locals adopted the Ibis from China, and it has turned into a symbol for the protection of the natural habitat.

‘Blue-eyed’ seafood

Hirahara also wanted to show me what life on the island was like. He took me to Sado Central Station, a shopping mall off the main highway in Sawada. There was a different reality with an ironic twist. Powers Fujimi is a large supermarket chain headquartered in the City of Niigata on the main island. As its name suggests, it is a “one-stop shopping” kind of place. The marine products section is like the United Nations of fish.

About half of the fish sold are what some of the locals refer to as “blue-eyed” or foreign fish. The labels tell the country of origin and how each is processed: Smoked salmon fillet from Canada, minced tuna from Fiji, chopped toro from India, salted mackerel from Norway, marinated trout roe from Russia, pickled cod roe from the U.S. The blue-eyed fish may not be as fresh as the local fish, as most come frozen, but they are cheaper.

The people of Sado have not been totally receptive about a big supermarket moving onto the island. When Powers Fujimi applied for permits a few yeas ago, Sadoans knew the impact it could have on the local farmers, fishermen and artisans, so they combined their efforts to have a local voice. As a result, a private shop called Kiemon moved into the mall to sell local vegetables, fruit, fish, meat and sake. Kiemon occupies a good space at the entrance of the mall directly across from Powers Fujimi.

Emphasis on local catch at Maruishi, a kaiten sushi bar

Kazuko Ishihara, who is the mother of four and a grandmother, voices her concern about the current state of fish. “Our children are growing up on the island eating less fish, not seeing what a whole fish looks like or knowing where the fish comes from,” she says. In an effort to make local fish available to the islanders and vistors, the Ishiharas have opened Maruishi, a kaiten sushi bar.

While most conveyor belt sushi bars are associated with cheap, low-grade sushi, Maruishi offers the freshest local fish at darn good prices. Eighty kinds of sushi, with half of them at 120 yen per piece, about $1.50. The Ishiharas can do it because they can deliver the fish direct from the market. The sushi bar has turned out to be a big hit on the island. The yellowtail or local tuna or snapper sushi are as good or better than what you’d taste at the Tsukiji fish market. You can also special order if you don’t see what you want, and there is no extra charge.

I learned that some of the sushi chefs who work at the restaurant are also truck drivers at the fish market. “It’s good to see bright young people stay on the island,” says Ishihara smiling. Her commitment with her husband to sustain the community goes beyond fish.

The fish market is now closing. The Ishiharas make a few more phone calls and wrap up the deal making. The storm has landed on the island, but the locals are saying that by tomorrow the skies will clear up. The Ishiharas have purchased the big swordfish that has been lying on the concrete all this time. They ask the young men to load it onto the truck.

Sonoko Sakai is a Japanese freelance writer and film producer who divides her time between Tokyo and Santa Monica. She has contributed stories and recipes to the Los Angeles Times, the former Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Saveur and Bungei Shunju (Japan). She is passionate about making soba by hand, and with master chef Akila Inouye of the Tsukiji Soba Academy, has created MazuMizu to teach Japanese home-cooking in Japan and abroad.

Top photo: The auction at the Sado fish market.

Photo and slideshow credits: Sonoko Sakai

Zester Daily contributor Sonoko Sakai is a Japanese food educator, writer and producer, as well as a mobile Japanese cooking teacher and soba maker, who divides her time between Los Angeles; Tehachapi, Calif.; and Tokyo. She has contributed stories and recipes to the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and Saveur. She is passionate about making soba by hand and is the founder of Common Grains. She is currently writing "Rice Craft, Adventures in Onigiri, Japanese Artful Fingerfood" (Chronicle Books -- to be published in fall of 2016).