FEATURE - Japan ocean sluice gate project stirs controversy
Author: Elaine Lies
Takeshi Hashimoto tells of hundreds of dolphins frolicking in the sea at dawn and dusk.
But all that has passed since giant sluice gates, part of a controversial land reclamation project, came crashing down four years ago, seriously damaging Japan's seaweed crop and destroying fishermen's livelihoods in this corner of the Ariake Sea.
The project - which critics call a classic example of public works projects that do more harm than good - has pitted the people of this city against each other, with environmentalists and fishermen pressing for the gates to be opened while others, led by the government, argue they are needed for flood control.
An expanse which was once water, is now dusty ground covered with scrubby grass and an occasional abandoned boat.
"It was beautiful, a shining sheet of silver," Yamashita, head of the "Save Isahaya" environmental group, said of the bay about 1,000 km (620 miles) southwest of Tokyo.
"There were crabs and fish jumping around. It was wonderful. It was alive. It didn't die all at once but very slowly."
Many in Japan became aware of the issue after 294 gates across a seven-km (four-mile) stretch of sea came down in 1997 with pictures of rare mudskipper fish desperately seeking water across wide stretches of cracked, parched soil.
DEADLY TO SEAWEED
Otherwise, though, the area's woes were largely forgotten until they crashed back into the public eye earlier this year when production of seaweed - a local speciality - fell sharply.
Prices of the greenish-black nori seaweed, mainly sold in wafer-thin sheets, soared 60 percent over the year before.
Nori is a staple and used to wrap delicacies from rice balls to sushi. The seaweed from the Ariake Sea is considered the best and accounts for 40 percent of total production.
Seaweed growers said one reason for the loss was a sharp increase in plankton, which consume nutrients. Environmentalists said the gates were causing killer red tides.
But while the seaweed failure seized national attention, fishermen said the impact on their catch was even worse.
Fisherman Hashimoto, from the village of Ariake-cho just outside Isahaya and the gates, said his take of crab had fallen to one-third of 1997 levels.
"There was an area just outside the gates that used to be one of the richest fishing grounds around. We caught at least twice as much there ... Now, even the shellfish we raise are being hurt. All we pull up are dead, empty shells."
As a result, incomes have fallen sharply.
Fellow fisherman Masaaki Matsumoto said his income is half what it was a decade ago. He supports a family of six on four million yen ($33,200) a year - two million yen after expenses.
"I have to ask my mother and my grandmother for their pensions so I can pay my taxes," he said. "Every month I have to bow my head to them and apologise."
FARMLAND, FLOOD PREVENTION
The Isahaya project has sparked controversy since its initial conception in 1952, when Japan, hit by famine after defeat in World War Two, decided to drain the bay to grow rice.
Public works projects have long been a policy pillar for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), eagerly welcomed by rural areas such as Isahaya for the jobs they bring - and for which, in return, they supported the LDP.
But rice production later outstripped consumption so much that the government now pays farmers to let some fields lie idle.
Still, officials insist the project is needed. "It is true that rice production is being curtailed ... But Nagasaki is nothing but mountains ... this sort of broad, level farmland is quite important," said a Nagasaki prefectural official.
Once completed in 2006, the project will have produced some 1,400 hectares (3,500 acres) of flat farmland but critics say few will be able to afford the cost of actually working it.
In the end, only part of the land will be used for farming anyway. Plans include the building of roads, bridges and even tourist faci