Fish processors rise to challenge

by Mizuho Aoki

SHIOGAMA, Miyagi Pref. — Fumio Oikawa is determined to clean the mud out of his small seaweed salt factory in Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture, and reopen as soon as possible.

“I’ve been coming here to clean up the mess every day from a day after March 11. At first, we couldn’t even step into the place, but now it’s getting much better,” said Oikawa, 63, manager of Ganbare Shiogama, a “moshio” seaweed salt producer, which was hit by the March 11 tsunami.

“I thought it’s over for our factory when I first saw its state. But later, when I found out that our (salt) kiln and an altar had survived the tsunami, I thought it’s a sign for us to revive the business,” he said. ” We are going to restart.”

Shiogama, about 15 km northeast of Sendai, is known as an entry point for large volumes of fresh tuna and other fish products. It is especially well-known for the production of “kamaboko” (processed fish cake).

The harbor housed nearly 200 fish processing companies and produced about 90,000 tons of processed marine products in 2007, according to figures provided by the city.

Many of the marine product processors in and around the harbor were damaged by the tsunami, leading many owners to consider closing down.

As of Thursday, the prefecture said the total cost of the quake-tsunami damage topped ¥390 billion.

But nearly a month after the mega-quake hit, people in Shiogama are slowly recovering from the initial shock and pulling themselves together to rebuild their businesses.

“I think it’s going to take at least a decade for Shiogama to return to the state we were in before March 11. But we are going to try to rebuild the town together,” Oikawa of Ganbare Shiogama declared.

Oikawa, who also runs a “kasuzuke” (sake-marinated fish) business, said he and nine other friends founded the salt company in 2009, using part of his kasuzuke plant.

Aiming to make moshio the local specialty in hopes of helping revive the town, whose main seafood processing industry was under threat by the dearth of younger workers and also by rising costs of fresh materials, they started the company from scratch, Oikawa said.

“Many locals helped us in building up the business. And things were just going up when the tsunami came. We had a business deal between a major department store waiting to be signed,” he said.

With five full-time employees at the factory, it produced about 100 kg of salt per week before the tsunami washed away everything apart from the kiln and the altar on the first floor. “The tsunami broke almost everything, including the drying machine and the storehouse.”

But when he thinks back to the time when he and his friends began to build the salt factory two years ago with hardly any money, he said it is not difficult to get things going once again.

“Once the factory’s production capacity is back, I guess we can restart producing salt pretty fast,” Oikawa said, adding he will consider other pursuits, including marinated fish, after the salt business is revived.

“And once we put together the company’s environment, we have to think about how we are going to design the damaged town. For this, we definitely need government support,” he said.

Compared with the worst-hit ports, including Kesennuma and Ishinomaki farther north, Shiogama’s damage from the tsunami was light.

Damage sustained by some factories is repairable but several hurdles have to be overcome, said Eiichi Sasaki, director of the Shiogama Danchi marine products processing industries cooperative.

“We now have a short supply of fish that many of our members were getting from Kesennuma and Ishinomaki, where all the refrigerators keeping tons of fish are broken. Once their stocks run out, what are they going to do?” Sasaki asked.

“Also, it’s really difficult to redevelop distribution routes once they are gone. Newcomers taking seafood products to market will create tougher competition.”

To retain their distribution routes, most of the co-op’s 69 member companies have recently restarted some operations, Sasaki said.

“Initially, I thought many factories would close down after the tsunami. But it looks like the number of companies that will go out of business is going to be far fewer than I’d expected,” he said.

Many factories were operating on loans from banks, so financial support from the government will be crucial for the industry to recover, Sasaki explained.

Eiaki Ito, who runs a fishing boat business and fishing gear shop named Ebisuya in Shiogama, was also firm on plans to restart his business.

Washing 50 “tairyo bata” banners that fishing boats hoist to announce a large catch, Ito said the vessels are ready to go any time.

“Luckily, seven out of nine boats had no damage. And the boats’ fuel tanks are fully filled,” Ito said.

The March 11 tsunami hit the fishing gear shop just a few minutes walk from Shiogama port, breaking glass and all four refrigerators for fresh bait. It also trashed the shop’s interior.

The total damage is going to cost him at least ¥30 million, Ito said.

“I don’t know how much of the damage will be covered by insurance,” he added. “I also don’t know whether there are people who want to get on a fishing boat after what happened.”

Ito said flatfish and gopher are easily caught off Shiogama, but he worries if things will be the same in the Pacific after the monster quake and tsunami.

But whatever the situation, Ito said he is intends to open the shop within a few months.

“The only thing we can do now is move forward and not look back,” Kazuyo, Ito’s wife, said.