Fishermen who lost their homes and boats on March 11 now fear radioactive water gushing into the Pacific from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant could cost them their livelihoods.
The contaminated water has raised concerns about the safety of seafood, prompting the government to set limits for the first time on the amount of radiation permitted in fish.
Authorities insisted the radioactive water would dissipate and posed no immediate threat to sea creatures or people who eat them, and most experts agree.
But even though the new standards are being adopted as a precaution, the mere suggestion that seafood from Japan could be at any risk stirred worries throughout the fishing industry.
“Even if the government says the fish is safe, people won’t want to buy seafood from Fukushima,” said Ichiro Yamagata, a fisherman who lived in the shadow of the Fukushima No. 1 plant. “We probably can’t fish there for several years.”
Fukushima is not a major fishing region, and no fishing is allowed in the direct vicinity of the plant. But experts estimate the coastal areas hit by the massive wave account for about a fifth of Japan’s annual catch.
India announced Tuesday it was halting food imports from Japan out of fear of radiation contamination. Few countries have gone so far, but India’s three-month ban reflected the unease created by the nuclear crisis among consumers.
Yamagata, whose home is within the 20-km evacuation zone around the plant, is staying in a Tokyo shelter with his wife and about 140 other refugees. He expects his fishing days are over.
After the magnitude 9.0 earthquake he ran outside and watched the second floor of his house collapse, then fled with his family when tsunami warnings sounded. Since then, he hasn’t been allowed to return to check on the 5-ton boat he used to troll for flounder. He assumes it’s gone, too.
The new limits on radioactivity in fish were imposed after plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. announced water tested near the plant Saturday contained levels of radioactive iodine 7.5 million times the legal limit. That level had dropped to 5 million times above the limit two days later.
Past readings were lower, but they were also taken farther from the plant, so the new readings did not necessarily mean that contamination was getting worse.
Japan said some fish caught last week about 80 km from the plant would have exceeded the new limits, which may change according to circumstances.
Tepco said this week it is purposely dumping low-level radioactive water into the sea to make room in a storage tank for more highly contaminated water that it needs to remove before workers can restore important cooling systems.
That announcement angered Fukushima’s federation of fisheries groups, which sent the utility a letter of protest.
“Our prefecture’s fisherman have lost their lives, fishing boats, piers and buildings due to the Great Eastern Japan Disaster,” federation Chairman Tetsu Nozaki said in the letter. “This low-level contaminated water has raised fears among fishermen that they will never be able to fish in our prefecture’s waters again, and we absolutely want you to stop.”
Ichiro Yamagata, 50, said he would like to return to his home and his job, but he sees no way that can happen. Nearly 17,000 boats have already been reported damaged in the three hardest-hit prefectures, and that’s just a partial tally.