CHITOSE, Japan - Even the salmon-master of the Chitose River found it in awesome sight. Seven million tiny salmon - whirling, inch-long chips of black and silver - churned the waters under hatchery director Eiichi Sakano's fascinated gaze.
The thaw is coming, and soon the salmon will leave the friendly waters where they were raised from eggs under Sakano's care, to tumble 50 miles downriver to the sea. Three in a hundred will survive and grow in the North Pacific until, in four years time, the mysterious spawning instinct brings them fighting back up the Chitose River, where the females will lay 3,000 eggs apiece to replenish the hatcheries.
"The salmon's life is a divine activity," said marine biologist Sakano with slow-spoken precision. "Without man's help it cannot survive.
Man and nature in partnership for once. Yet, Sakano's hatchery in the starkly beautiful Hokkaido snow-country is something else - the bottom line on Japan's highly publicized anguish over fishery problems. In the last 10 years, conservation and the world's most advanced hatchery techniques have trebled Japan's salmon production and it may double in the next 10. The spectacular success with salmon is part of a massive fish-farming program to stock the seas around the Japanese archipelago and systematically harvest protein.
Japan has resisted the introduction of 200-mile fishing zones, claiming it could lose almost half its 10.6 million ton annual catch. The Japanese are heavily dependent on fish - seafood supplies half the protein intake for the population of 112 milionn. Negotiations for fishing rights in the new zones, first with the United States and currently the Soviet Union, have caused an alarmed public to worry about future fish supplies.
Meanwhile, fishery agency officials who long ago anticipated the international struggle over fishing grounds were forging a $600 million plan that should allow Japan to catch all the fish it needs within 200 miles of its own coast by the year 2000.
In Hokkaido, fish-farming specialist Toshio Uasa explained: "Now we know we shall be kicked out of other people's sea, we must cultivate fish in our own waters."
"The coastal areas will be a sea farm," he added.
Backed by a nationwide research and development program, the aim is to replenish exhausted fishing grounds, create new ones with underwater "apartment houses" for fish, and reduce industrial population of the seas.
Only a fraction of the available coastal waters are now used for what is termed aquaculture, but the catch from the man-made fishing grounds has zoomed 500 per cent in the last seven years. Hokkaido fishermen took up 13,000 tons of clams in 1971. After four-years of scientifically guided artificial cultivation, production is up to 45,000 tons a year.
Other delicacies now being cropped on a large scale are oysters, crabs, shrimp, edible seaweed and various free-swimming fish. The favored method and the one expanding fastest is the raising of fry from fish eyes for release in coastal waters. The high-priced fish favored in the nation's 40,000 sushiyas or raw fish restaurants, are pampered and fattened in floating enclosures. The process is very wasteful. It takes eight tons of sardines to produce a single ton of the specially tasty yellowfish and the search is on for a cheaper feed.
Even tuna, the fish prized above all others by sashimi-eaters for its bitter-soft flesh, is now being grown at a third of its retail cost.
Research specialist Ichiro Asano says the rapid onset of 200-mile proclamations by the United States and other countries has accelerated the Japanese program for increased domestic production. "Our catchphrase now," he said, "is that we have to change from catching fish to making them."
After experimenting with sunken ships and old cars, the Japanese are now creating new fish beds with concrete cylinders pierce dwith windows. Dropped in groups of 4,000 in 150 feet of water, they rapidly attract shoals of fish. The coast is not low - new 21-ton concrete triangle units cost $130,000 each - but government officials believe they will last forever.
Oddly enough large-scale artificial production of fish is not the latest japanese mass production process, but the first. Eiichi Sakano's salmon hatchery is 90 years old and a painting in his office shows his predecessors of Emperor Meiji's time raising salmon at the same site. "I'm proud of the past," he said, but he went on to emphasize the rapid improvements made possible by modern research.
When the spawning salmon were netted in Hokkaido's 80 major rivers last fall, about 10 per cent of their eggs were fertilized and sent to the hatcheries. The delibeately damp, gloomy building at Sakano's Chitose hatchery simulates the conditions of nature. A mountain stream running over pebble beds eventually carried the tiny fish out into the daylight over a four-month period.
Once an hour a woman worker sprays a fine powder of fishmeal and vitamins into the tanks and the fish turn the surface of the concrete tanks silver as they feed in tens of thousands. Protected from shock and predators, the fish graduate to the river in far greater numbers than if nature were allowed to take its course.
Of the 15 million salmon Sakano is releasing this year, he expects 150,000 - half of them females - to return. A shy man of 52 in a tweed jacket and grey slacks, Sakano said: "When they go its like seeing our sons off for the first day at a new job. The most satisfying thing is when they come back because we know they are our children."
Some of the Japanese salmon are traveling further than they can ever know. The Chitose hatchery workers were readying the last of a 2 million egg shipment for Chile. Japan has also agreed to share its technology with the Soviet Union in a new hatchery at Sakhalin on Russia's Pacific coast.
If the plan to bring Japan's 470,000 fishermen home by 2000 works, it will complete a 50-year cycle of industrial evolution. After World War II, when the Japanese people were desperately poor and hungry, indiscriminate overfishing exhausted the coastal waters. The trawler fleets then moved to the rich fishing grounds of other nations and eventually the reckless pilage by Japanese and others led to a cry for resource protection and the 200-mile zones.
Active conservation of coastal waters began about 10 years ago and the results are startlingly good. Catches are increasing and after long years of decline, the fishing villages are showing a new prosperity. Industrial pollution of the sea, which reached a peak with the Minamata mercury poisoning of several hundred people, is now receding. Fish are returning to the Inland Sea of Japan and fishery agency officials estimate that in 10 years the notorious Sea of Japan coast will be returned to the relatively low pollution levels of 1960.
Aquaculture provides 8 per cent of Japan's total fish catch and that share is expected to show a sharp increase. Each of the 40 coastal prefectures has a fishery research center either planned or under construction. The Japanese intend to map the thermal currents, the condition of the seabed and then stock the waters with the right fish - all to extend the concepts of livestock farming on land 200 miles out to sea.