At 3am one October night, in a dark and smelly Nagasaki port in western Japan, a 300-ton steel fishing boat from the East China Sea was unloading its catch. Not a man among the tired crew was smiling. One fisherman sighed. “The haul is so tiny,” he lamented. The boat contained eight massive tanks but six were empty. And most of the fish in the hold were not mackerel, the hoped-for prize. Instead, the fishermen were unloading smaller and less-pricey fish to market.

The East China Sea — bounded by Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan — used to be a trove for Japanese fishermen, but the situation has dramatically changed in the last decade. The life of Toshiro Nomura, 67, tells the story.

Mr. Nomura was born in a fisherman’s family in the western frontier Goto Islands of Nagasaki, long a base for profitable deep-sea fishing. His father established a fishing company in 1961 and enjoyed a plentiful business from the East China Sea throughout his lifetime. Nomura took over in 2005. In less than a decade, he shut down his operations. “There was no hope for the future,” Nomura said.

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