Big fish to fry

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 February, 2005, 12:00am

With the Kyoto Protocol coming into effect this week, Japan has been celebrating its own initiatives towards curbing greenhouse-gas emissions. But, at lakes and ponds across the country, another hot environmental topic is dividing the community.

Black bass - also known as the Florida largemouth, bigmouth and bucketmouth - are one of the most popular for dedicated lure fishermen in Japan. The sport, which uses artificial bait to 'lure' the fish on to the hook, first became popular here in the 1970s, when anglers brought in the black bass and blue gill (another of the Sunfish family) from North America and secretly released the predators into lakes and ponds.

In 10 years, they had eaten many of the local fish, rapidly changing the ecological balance. Black bass and blue gill breed profusely and can endure a variety of environments. Also helping them to proliferate is the fact that anglers release their catch back into the water. In the mid-1980s, environmentalists and smelt and crucian carp fishermen on Lake Biwa - the largest in Japan and known for its unique biodiversity - tried to get rid of the pests by catching and dumping them.

But there was an unexpected backlash from lure fishermen, equipment dealers and some tour promoters. In 1985, they began the Bass Pro Fishing contest - with cash prizes - in Lake Kawaguchi, a popular resort near Mount Fuji, which triggered another wave of enthusiasm for game fishing. Tens of thousands of anglers have made the pilgrimage to the Bass Festival, held there since 1995, a time when the larger and stronger Florida bass were also sweeping through Japanese waters - after being released illegally.

Heated debates continued, and one after another, local governments took measures to control the 'exotic invaders'. Around Lake Biwa (where there are estimated to be 2,000 tonnes of bass and blue gill), Shiga prefecture launched a system to exchange caught bass for cash coupons. Some anglers, meanwhile, filed lawsuits against the local government for prohibiting bass fishing.

Tokyo also recognised the dangers, and new legislation is due in June to prohibit the import, keeping and release into the wild of potentially hazardous foreign species, including the black bass and related fish, as well as exotic monkeys, ants, snakes and butterflies. 'There is no way to control black bass, and they have a massive influence on biodiversity,' said Katsuki Nakai, an Environmental Agency committee member and chief curator of the Biwa Lake Museum.

Soon, it seems, the only way Japan's army of black-bass anglers will be able to enjoy their sport is by heading to North America. But, then, they would have to be really hooked.