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From refuse to resource

Yuri Numata

Sep. 12, 2017

The Gulf of California in Mexico is rich in marine resources such as sea bream, Spanish mackerel and clams. But growing demand from tourists has led to depleted fish populations. At the same time, harbors are having problems with the massive amount of shells left over after clams are processed. A small Japanese firm is conducting an experiment that could solve 2 problems at once.

The city of La Paz faces the Gulf of California and is blessed with abundant marine resources. But fish prices have soared in recent years.

Nearby cities have been developed into resorts, spurring demand for marine products. The rise in prices has resulted in indiscriminate fishing and smaller catches. The catch has dropped by a third in the last 6 years.

Local restaurants are feeling the impact. The price of a plate of seafood tacos at one restaurant has doubled in 8 years. "I complained. It's pretty tough on the wallet," says a customer.

"The fish is so expensive now. There aren't as many customers at a lot of restaurants and they're not making as much money," says the manager.

Fishermen are also feeling the pinch. "My income's half of what it used to be and I have to work more to catch the same amount of fish," says a fisherman.

The huge demand is causing another problem.

Every year, more than 1,400 tons of shells are thrown away. They pile up on beaches and dump sites. That means some places smell of decay.

But a Japanese company, Kaiyo Kensetsu, has set out to solve both the decline in the catch and the massive waste. It makes artificial reefs using shells.

Reefs made by the company are already in use in Japan. CEO Masaki Katayama's father started making them 30 years ago. He came up with the idea when he saw small shrimps and crabs gathering around shells.

Clamshells tend to attract microorganisms, which can be food for fish, and can create a home for them. Japan now has about 10,000 of the reefs. They've helped to double the catch in some places.

Katayama thinks his reefs can help solve the problems in Mexico. "I think we can use them to replenish fish numbers. I'd like to be able to increase the amount of those tasty fish," he says.

In the beginning of July, Katayama and his team visited La Paz. "It's such a waste. These shells can still be used," he says.

Katayama met with state officials to explain how his product could help. He told them that in Japan, his reefs have already succeeded in increasing the same types of fish that can be found in waters around Mexico.

The government officials asked whether the reefs would pollute the sea and where would be the best place to put them.

"We have to go step by step, to get the benefits of the project at the beginning," said a member of Katayama's team.

The 2 sides agreed to carry out a trial by installing small reefs.

"We want the reefs to be where we can see the results. Our lives depend on the ocean," said a government official.

The state government gave its approval for the experiment and Katayama's team began their survey.

Local fishermen helped to pack the shells in the cases. If the experiment goes well, the plan is to have them make the reefs to earn extra income.

"It's really interesting. I'm certain that we can bring back fish to our seas again," says a fisherman.

Katayama goes diving himself to look for the best places for the reefs. He found a patch of sea in Mexico that's rich in marine plants, and that means it has the potential to attract fish. He expects to boost the populations of popular fish such as sea bream and sea bass.

"I think we've found a very promising place to start our trial. I believe that in the end, the most important thing is to increase the numbers of these valuable fish," says Katayama.

They will be able to measure the effects of the reefs in October. Expectations are high for bringing this sea's natural riches back to life.