Fishy business: Dragnet catches Yaizu fishery workers accused of decades-long bonito heist

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Yaizu Fisheries Cooperative Association, where current and former employees were arrested in connection with bonito theft, in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture

SHIZUOKA — The arrest of seven people, including current and former members of the Yaizu Fisheries Cooperative Association, accused of pilfering a massive haul of bonito from the local fish market has sent shockwaves rippling through this port community in Shizuoka Prefecture.

The roundup seems to confirm long-swirling suspicions that foul play might have been a factor in the declining catch at Yaizu port.

Although Yaizu still boasts the largest bonito catch by tonnage in Japan, the allegations are serious and have prompted calls for investigation as well as measures to prevent recurrence and damage to the prominent Yaizu brand.

‘They betrayed us’

“So, the rumors were true,” said an employee of a fishery company that was a victim of the theft. “The theft of these fish, fish we risked our lives to catch out in the Pacific, is unforgivable.”

Within the company, eyebrows had been raised over the small catch at Yaizu port, compared to the port in Kagoshima.

“We trusted the fishery co-op, but they betrayed us. I suppose we’re not the only victims.”

An official involved with the association attested that the concerns dated back three decades.

Following the arrests, the Shizuoka prefectural police were contacted by several fisheries companies to report damages, reinforcing the view that the theft had been a long-term racket, involving a changing cast of culprits.

“The association officials and fish processing companies were lining their pockets, all while the fishery companies were the only ones made to suffer as fools,” said a source close to the investigation. “A Pandora’s box has been opened.”

Skimming the scales

On Oct. 7, the police arrested three suspects on suspicion of theft: a 47-year-old former executive of a fish processing company, a 47-year-old transportation company employee, and a 43-year-old employee of the same company. As an accomplice, a 40-year-old employee of the fishery co-op was also arrested.

On Oct. 27, the police arrested three more suspects: a 60-year-old former president of a fish processing company, a 31-year-old fishery co-op employee, and a 30-year-old former co-op employee, for a total of seven people arrested in connection with the allegations.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Yaizu fishing port

The police believe that the ringleaders were the 40-year-old fishery co-op employee and the former president of the fish processing company.

After bonito is brought to land, it is weighed by the co-op and then stored in a warehouse.

The 40-year-old co-op employee who oversaw weighing of the bonito catch is believed to have taken advantage of his position by instructing four of the arrested men — current and former co-op employees and shipping company workers — to carry away a portion of the bonito without weighing it.

The former president of the fish processing company allegedly instructed his subordinate, the 47-year-old former executive, to falsely claim that bonito being transported to their warehouse belonged to the company. It seems that the 40-year-old co-op employee received a portion of the proceeds from the stolen fish’s sale.

All seven have admitted their involvement in the case.

The fish processing company in question has been in business for over 50 years, dealing in some brand-name products certified by the Yaizu Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

At the co-op, the arrest of three fellow workers was met with surprise.

“They were all so diligent, not the sort of guys who would do any wrong,” said one colleague. “I was shocked and can still hardly believe it.”

According to the city government of Yaizu, the value of marine products landed at the Yaizu fishing port was ¥41.2 billion in 2020, the highest in Japan. The port has also been the nation’s largest source of frozen bonito at about 89,000 tons.

The co-op has set up a six-member investigation committee, including lawyers in the committee ranks. It will interview all of the co-op’s nearly 120 employees and compile the investigation’s findings by the end of November.

The co-op has already introduced measures to prevent recurrence, such as deploying private security guards and establishing fixed truck routes.

“We are very sorry and regretful,” said a senior co-op official. “We want to regain trust, somehow.”