Former Japanese fisherman finds profit in whale-watching

RAUSU, Japan (Reuters) - Masato Hasegawa is the fourth generation of his family to be a fisherman on Japan’s northern oceans, but now his cruises focus on admiring sea life instead of catching it.

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His company provides whale-watching trips, a growing business across Japan that has helped put Rausu, a remote town on Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido, on the global eco-tourism map.

He also is in the vanguard of efforts to shift the struggling town’s economy from fishing to tourism - a change that mirrors his own life.

“We couldn’t get fish anymore; economically it just got really tough. The squid really fell, and the pollock just crashed,” the 57-year-old said on the deck of his boat.

“We’d been fishing for four generations. I wanted to have them do it,” he added, referring to his sons, now age 25 and 29. “But that’s why I quit - I knew it would be impossible for them. I thought, why give them something that won’t break even?”

So in 2006 he started his company, catering to whale-watchers in summer and bird-watchers in winter.

Initially, he struggled. Hasegawa and others in Rausu tourism had to promote themselves without national government help. He said it was hard to gain recognition for the tiny town, sandwiched between steep mountains and the Nemuro Strait with a view of Russia’s Kunashiri island on clear days.

“Honestly, the first year or two I thought I’d really made a mistake,” he said. “I didn’t make any money.”

But over the years he became more aware of how abundant orcas were in local waters and started tailoring promotion to match. A fortuitous long-term TV project helped too.

Now Hasegawa has so many customers he often has a waiting list, has ordered a new boat, and drives a luxury car.

Despite Rausu’s troubles, with its population falling by several hundred a year and fishermen going out of business, there’s no resentment of nature tourism, which brought nearly 33,500 people to the town in 2018.

“The fishermen let us know where the orcas and whales are; we talk back and forth a lot,” Hasegawa said. “They go out early so they’ll let us know about things like the waves.”

Though Rausu has never been a big whaling town, it’s not far from both Abashiri and Kushiro, ports with a long history of hunting whales. It was from Kushiro, 160 km south of Rausu, that the fleet departed on July 1 for its first hunt after commercial whaling resumed.

Hasegawa said he is concerned about whether whaling will affect his business, but notes that whalers won’t operate in the immediate vicinity. They also don’t hunt sperm whales and orcas.

So he is optimistic about the future.

“Right now, the lifestyle we have is really good, better than it could have been with fishing,” he said. “The job is established and steady, so I think my sons will want to inherit. They’ll make a good living.”

Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Gerry Doyle