July 15, 2008 / 1:11 PM / 11 years ago

Japan's struggling fishermen strike over fuel

(Adds prime minister comment in paragraphs 8-9)

By Yoko Kubota

TOKYO, July 15 (Reuters) - Fishing came to a halt in the land of sushi and sashimi on Tuesday as hundreds of thousands of Japanese fishermen went on strike to demand government help with soaring oil prices.

More than 3,000 people in rubber boots and waders marched through central Tokyo in searing heat, shouting slogans and carrying banners warning that the fishing industry, a source of pride in fish-loving Japan, was on the brink of collapse.

The one-day strike involving about 200,000 Japanese boats and around 400,000 fishermen follows U.S. crude oil hitting record highs above $147 last week.

"Even if we go out to sea, we can’t make a profit and our debts just pile up," said Hiromitsu Noguchi, a 59-year-old tuna fisherman who travelled 800 km (500 miles) from southern Japan to take part in the march.

"If we go on like this, there will be no more fishing in Japan," he said.

The industry faced difficulties even before fuel price rises kicked in, with increasing competition for ever-scarcer marine resources making it hard for many to keep working.

The protest in Japan — the world’s second-largest fish consumer after China and fifth-largest fish producer, according to the Fisheries Agency — follows demonstrations around the world over soaring fuel costs.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, calling the rise in fuel prices "abnormal", said the government was considering new measures to help businesses cope with the extra costs.

"If possible, we would like to compile additional measures by the end of the month," he told reporters, saying details were still being worked out.

The government said last December it would provide 10.2 billion yen ($96.4 million) to help the fishing industry cope with rising fuel prices. Last month, it unveiled another plan to help individuals and businesses, such as by promoting energy-saving technologies.

But fishermen and union members say the price of boat fuel has tripled in five years and more than doubled since January and they have yet to feel the impact of the measures.

"I haven’t seen the money," said Noguchi.

Akira Takahama of the Japan Fisheries Cooperatives Zengyoren said government plans were still unclear.

"We can’t handle rising fuel costs just with energy-saving technologies," he said.

Government spokesman Nobutaka Machimura, who met fishing industry representatives on Tuesday, said the fuel price rise was hitting everyone.

"Fishermen, farmers, transport companies, even ordinary households — rising fuel prices are having various impacts, and right now these are concentrated in and being expressed by the fishermen," he said.

"But the government is taking what measures it can." (Additional reporting by Elaine Lies and Mari Saito; Editing by Isabel Reynolds and Valerie Lee) ($1 = 105.82 Yen)

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