Tohoku fisheries fight back from 3/11

by Hillel Wright

Special To The Japan Times

“The facts about much of Japan’s social, political, and financial life are hidden so well that the truth is nearly impossible to know,” writes Alex Kerr in his acclaimed 2001 study “Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan.” He continues, “A lack of reliable data is the single most significant difference between Japan’s democracy and the democracies of the West.”

This insight goes a long way toward explaining the curious fact that the latest figures from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries for marine fisheries and aquaculture — released this year, but pertaining to 2010 — exclude data from the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima.

As it happens, of course, it was precisely those parts of the Tohoku region of northeastern Honshu that were most gravely damaged by the tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. Since those three prefectures generate 10 percent to 12 percent of all domestic fisheries landings, it would appear that some public servant somewhere felt a huge drop in total production nationwide would look bad on the record for 2011, which will be released in 2013. Hence the incomplete information for 2010 to make such comparisons well-nigh impossible.

However, figures compiled after the March 11, 2011, magnitude 9 earthquake and the 9-meter to 30-meter-high tsunami it generated show that 25,014 fishing vessels were lost or damaged, at a cost of ¥1.7 trillion, and that 319 fishing ports were destroyed, at a cost of some ¥8.2 trillion.

Although seven prefectures along the Pacific coast of the Tohoku region were directly affected by the disaster, the three for which fishery landings data for 2010 have not been released suffered by far the most. Specifically, Iwate lost 95 percent of its 10,522 fishing boats; Miyagi lost nearly 90 percent of the 13,570 commercial boats registered there; and Fukushima lost more than 80 percent of its 1,068-boat fleet.

Even worse was the destruction of ports — both infrastucture and facilities. Iwate lost 98 percent of its 111 ports; Miyagi lost all its 142 ports; and of Fukushima’s 10, all were lost.

The loss of ships and ports in these three prefectures plus damages to the north in Aomori Prefecture and along the Pacific coast of Hokkaido, and to the south in Ibaraki and Chiba prefectures, resulted in a 22 percent reduction of Japan’s total marine fishery, which has amounted to more than 5 million tons annually since 2000. These seven prefectures, which comprise about 16 percent of Japan’s population, produce 33 percent of its fish and seafood.

In spite of the near-unimaginable scale of the damage, the Japanese spirit remained unquenched and the fishing community’s vitality undaunted. On April 14, 2011, fishing resumed at Shiogama Port in Miyagi Prefecture, which is one of the largest ports in the Tohoku region. The first fishing ship to make port was the Hoyo Maru No. 18, a tuna longliner loaded with about 17 tons of fish, mostly tuna. There were no reports of radiation. Prices for big-eye tuna were ¥5,800 per kg — nearly double the usual price of ¥3,000 per kg.

By June 2011, Kesennuma, which is also in Miyagi Prefecture and is the region’s major fishing port for landings of skipjack tuna (katsuo) had removed many tons of debris, re-elevated the pier that was submerged due to land subsidence, and begun to receive deliveries of skipjack, one of Japan’s fisheries’ most important species. But a prefectural official said, “The catch right after we restart is expected to be about 50 tons to 100 tons a day, which is less than one-eighth of an average year’s daily catch.”

This writer visited Oarai, Ibaraki Prefecture, on Sept. 12, 2011, six months and a day after the massive quake struck, producing a giant whirlpool in the harbor and a 4-meter tsunami that inundated the fishing port and swept cars off the highway. The outer harbor, which berthed freighters, was littered with dozens of derelict containers, and cars were washed out of the town hall’s parking lot, hundreds of meters away. In addition, 29 fishing boats ranging from one to five tons were sunk, washed away or stranded ashore.

However, Minoru Ebisawa of the Oarai Town Office reported some good news amid the devastation, which was that as soon as a quake warning issued by the Japan Meteorological Agency was received at the Town Office, evacuation orders were immediately given and expeditiously carried out. Most coastal communities did not order evacuations until a tsunami warning was issued, some 15 minutes later, resulting in the loss of thousands of lives. Due to the diligence and dedication of Oarai’s officials, the entire at-risk population was moved to higher ground and not one life was lost.

Ebisawa also explained that the cleanup was made possible by the efforts of more than 100 maintenance and construction workers, along with their equipment and machinery, and more than 150 town employees — all of whom worked as volunteers.

Fishing for the facts

In 2010, for which data from Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures has not been made available, mackerels were by a big margin the leading species landed by Japanese fishermen, with 420,000 tons, followed by skipjack tuna (274,000 tons), Alaska pollock (235,000 tons) and the various types of squid (225,000 tons).

In terms of sources, marine fisheries accounted for 3.659 million tons, followed by marine aquaculture (934,000 tons), inland fisheries (40,000 tons) and inland aquaculture (39,000 tons).

In 2009, the Tohoku region of northeast Honshu accounted for 22 percent of all Japan’s marine fishery production (including 38 percent of the mackerel catch and 48 percent of the squid), as well as 18 percent of its aquaculture — especially oysters, kelp and wakame seaweed.

On Sept. 12, several mid-water trawlers came in with catches of whitebait (shirasu) — actually 2- to 3-month-old sardines — which easily passed radiation tests carried out by officials from Ibaraki prefectural government. The whitebait registered 3 becquerels/kg from radioactive cesium — the legal maximum was 500 becquerels/kg — and showed no traces of radioactive iodine. In 2012, the national government lowered the legal maximum to 100 becquerels/kg for all fish and seafood.

However, Akinobu Usiniwa of Japan Fisheries Agency Oarai, pointed out that whereas 5,000 tons of fish worth ¥800 million were landed at Oarai in 2010, landings in the four months from April to July 2011 were down by 40 percent.

But whereas Oarai is more than 100 km from the explosions and three reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant that followed the March 11 quake and tsunami, the fishing port of Otsu to the north of Oarai in Ibaraki Prefecture is less that 100 km distant. There, as Joh Murayama of the Otsu Fishery Cooperative told this writer, the port’s entire fishery was shut down due to concerns over radiation.

Notwithstanding such calamities, though, Japan’s fishing community appeared determined to make 2012 a year of positive energy. In consequence, a new world record for the most expensive fish sale was set on Thursday, Jan. 5, in the first tuna auction of the new year at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Wholesale Fish Market when bidding finally stopped for a 269-kg Pacific bluefin tuna (Thunnus orientalis), known in Japanese as hon maguro (true tuna) or kuro maguro (black tuna).

That fish came from the Tsugaru Strait, which separates Japan’s main island of Honshu from the northern island of Hokkaido. It was caught by a hook-and-line fisherman from Oma on the Shimokita Peninsula at Honshu’s most northerly point — a famed tuna port that also provided world-record-breaking new-year fish in 2001 and 2010.

The record-breaking specimen was bought by Kiyoshi Kiyomura, the president of Kiyomura Company, which owns and operates a restaurant chain named Sushi Zanmai in Tsukiji and elsewhere in Tokyo. The selling price was ¥56,490,000 ($736,000), which represents ¥210,000 per kg ($1,238 per lb). That astronomical amount eclipsed by far the previous record of ¥32.49 million (¥95,000 per kg [$526 per lb]) set at 2011′s new-year sale for a giant 342-kg Pacific bluefin tuna caught in the Tsugaru Strait by longline fishermen out Toi Port in Hokkaido.

Insiders at Tsukiji expressed satisfaction that the tuna was purchased by one of their own. They also hoped the excitement generated by the transaction would help dispel the negative effect of radiation fears and rumors that have seen importers in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan boycotting Japanese seafood products.

So damaging has this been that in February 2012 the Japan Fisheries Association, which was founded in 1882 and has a membership of several hundred companies and fisheries organizations, reported that the International Coalition of Fisheries Associations delivered a resolution to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization calling on it “to help eliminate rootless negative rumors on seafood from the eastern and northern areas of Japan severely affected by the great earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.” The resolution went on to say that: “Despite safety of fish guaranteed by the Japanese authorities concerned through monitoring and inspections, sales of the seafood have decreased drastically due to rootless negative rumors.”

Part of the problem, according to investigative crime reporter Jake Adelstein, author of the 2009 best-seller “Tokyo Vice,” is that most Japanese media unconditionally accepted and “parroted” misinformation put out by the national government and the stricken nuclear plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), concerning the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns. Adelstein cited the Sankei Shimbun and Chunichi Shimbun newspapers as exceptions.

While the recovery, reconstruction and rebuilding of fishing communities, ports and boats is a monumental challenge, the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant poses a potentially greater threat to Japan’s fishery.

That’s particularly because the rich Joban Oki fishing ground, where the cold Oyashio Current from sub-arctic Hokkaido and the Kuril Islands meets the warm Kuroshio Current from sub-tropical Okinawa is located from just offshore to more than 300 nautical miles out to sea in the North Pacific off Fukushima. High levels of radioactive materials in the ocean and on the seabed have forced the closure of fisheries for valuable groundfish such as flounder (hirame), sole (karei) and anglerfish (anko), as well as shellfish including abalone (awabi), crab (kani) and clams (asari). On April 5, 2011, the government of Ibaraki Prefecture banned fishing for sand lance (ikanago) due to levels of radioactive cesium above the legal levels — so marking the first shutdown of a Tohoku fishery. Many more were to follow.

Meanwhile the Japan Fisheries Agency branch of the national government has set up an inspection protocol for migratory pelagic species which pass by the Tohoku coast.

Salmon (sake) are inspected for radioactivity in August and September in Hokkaido and in October and November in Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. Mackerel (saba) are inspected from April through June at two locations in Ibaraki Prefecture, and from July through September in Aomori Prefecture — and again in Ibaraki in November and December. Pacific saury (sanma) are inspected in August and September in Hokkaido, October and November in Fukushima and November and December in Ibaraki. In addition, skipjack crossing the Joban Oki, which formerly produced 30 percent of Japan’s marine fish, are inspected in the Kuroshio Current in May and June and in the Oyashio Current from July through September.

Then finally, on June 25, 2012, a real breakthrough to justify that Tsukiji auction’s battling spirit came when 295 kg of octopus (tako), caught in the coastal Fukushima Prefecture sector of the Joban Oki were landed at the port of Soma, marking the first time in 15 months that deliveries of seafood were made in Fukushima. The octopi were virtually free of radiation and were shipped to retail stores in Soma, where most of the product was quickly bought by consumers. Then, on July 21, octopus from Fukushima was at last sold outside the prefecture for the first time, in neighboring Miyagi.

Surely now, the future for Japan’s fisheries, and those out of Tohoku ports in particular, are beginning to look increasingly brighter with each passing month — though there’s no disguising the fact that any return to pre-March 11, 2011, normalcy is still many years in the future.