When asked if he would like to fish on Nara island, a western Japanese island famed for having sacred deer, Koki Chishima stares into the camera and stares back.
“Fish?” he says, as other members of the local fishing community greet him with nods of agreement. “I can do an imitation trout. There’s no more fishing on Nara.”
Chishima, the newly elected mayor of the town of Nara, went out into the sea around 4 a.m. on Sunday and pulled a plastic fishing line wrapped around a tree branch, which he used to rope in two trout — because that’s what trout do.
For years, the fishing community has been vocal in its opposition to plastic bags, a common blight on Nara island, and again, with the recent approval of an island’s official sushi-routing, this could be a start to environmental change. Chishima wants to prevent plastic bottles and containers from littering the sea, and says his area isn’t on the menu for sushi chains, noting that his fishing trips won’t stop until all plastic bags are gone.
“Water and wildlife are our principal concerns here,” Chishima said. “We want to protect them as much as possible.”
More than six million tons of plastic wind up in the ocean every year, as part of the accumulation and pollution of 25 million tons of plastic waste worldwide, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Marine products from polyethylene are responsible for 14 percent of the plastics trash in the world’s oceans, according to the group, and waste reduction efforts could help alleviate a global concern that threatens the survival of marine life.
Chishima shared a video of the fish, released by the fisheries department, on his Facebook page. The feed has now accumulated 1,400 reactions, with many expressing praise and praise for the town’s efforts in using both artificial and natural materials to tackle the problem.
“Actually, this is a very good thing you are doing, sir!” write Gisela Albrecht.
“I am the mayor of Sudhuski in Bavaria,” Brünne Rignisch adds. “And on this issue, as for Nara, my opinion will be that nature conquers nature. That is the only way for wildlife to overcome plastic waste.”
Other users reacted with skepticism, pointing out that fish only eat what is close to their habitat.
As of now, residents can keep plastic bags if they have a fishing license, but Chishima says the practice will be phased out if he’s re-elected next month.
Nara has a population of nearly 74,000 and three major islands, including the Miyajima, Yushan and Nara islands.
The Miyajima, the island that handles the sushi, is considered sacred by people of the Japonismi religion, which was founded in Japan after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The island is home to approximately 12,000 deer and a handful of white seals, which are sacred and cause pilgrims to pay annual visits to Miyajima, according to the Buddhist tradition.
In 2019, sushi pioneer Yoshihiro Narisawa, of Narisawa sushi, was met with controversy for showing up at the Miyajima branch of a new fast-food chain called Muddy Oak Toasters. Narisawa then opened his own sushi restaurant on the island.
The effort to change Nara’s plastic bag legislation, should Chishima’s cause succeed, will face significant hurdles. Japan’s Diet voted against a law against plastic bags in January, saying that there was no evidence that reducing plastic bag use would have a positive impact on the environment.
But on Nara, Chishima has strong support from the general public and local political and cultural leaders, including Nara’s governor — who can’t use an official vehicle to go fishing, but prefers to fish from the back of his pickup truck — as well as the villages and agriculture ministry.
Chishima says he plans to ask the government to allow him to take plastic bags back from retailers for disposal, and will propose a law prohibiting the use of plastic bags altogether, although it’s not clear how this would be implemented.
“Our elementary school is building a seawall with the fish, and I’d like to use plastic bags to encase some of it,” he said. “I would like to make it so that fish from our ocean that were salvaged by our fishermen can be used for the seawall.”