Radiation, debris vex Tohoku’s fishermen

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

Four months after the quake and tsunami hit communities along the Tohoku coastline, fishermen in Fukushima Prefecture and nearby areas still find themselves in uncharted waters as contamination of the sea remains a major obstacle to their business.

Toshihiro Omori, who is in charge of policy planning at Japan Fisheries Cooperatives, said fishermen in Fukushima have not been able to restart their business since the March 11 disaster triggered the nuclear crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 power plant.

“I can say that without the nuclear power plant under control, those in the area won’t be able to do anything about catching fish,” Omori said during a lecture in Tokyo last month.

The first signs that radiation was spreading at sea came to light on April 4, when radioactive cesium and iodine higher than allowable standards was found in “konago” sand lance caught off Kitaibaraki, Ibaraki Prefecture.

The finding sparked fears of radioactive contamination in a variety of fish, and news continued of further radioactive spills into the sea.

On June 29, Tepco revealed that tellurium 129m had been detected near the power plant in concentrations of 720 becquerels per liter, or over double the level considered safe. The isotope only has a half life of 34 days, and experts believe it will not become a health concern for locals.

Although there seems to be no prospect for fishermen near the damaged plant to resume operations anytime soon, those fishing in nearby waters are having a hard time fighting rumors that catches from the area may not be safe.

To counter misleading information about the situation, the government claims it is doing all it can to make sure no contaminated fish are shipped to markets.

As of July 8, the Japan Fisheries Agency said there had been 949 screenings around the Pacific coast of eastern Japan since mid-March to check radiation levels.

Tests have so far revealed that other than sand lance, flounders, crabs, seaweed and hen clams were also found to be contaminated beyond government-set levels.

But all of those have been either banned from the market or people have been told by local governments not to gather them.

The Fisheries Agency has been routinely catching various fish to gauge contamination levels and officials have also been carrying out tests at a number of different depths.

Studies have been carried out from the Tohoku coast all the way to Tokyo Bay and along the shores of Kanagawa Prefecture, according to the agency.

Weekly samples are also being taken at major fishing ports.

Bonito caught and brought to Miyagi Prefecture in late June were captured at least 240 km offshore.

No fish caught in the vicinity of the Fukushima plant are being sold on the market, the agency said.

Proper measures have been taken regarding fish that migrate from one area to another, the fisheries agency also stressed.

To ensure the safety of stocks that will be caught and sent to market, local governments have been carrying out test catches in all areas where fishing operations are scheduled to resume.

Catches from those areas will also undergo weekly followup inspections after they have been landed at ports.

While some groups, including the nongovernment organization Greenpeace, have said the government should expand both the area and the number of fish being tested for contamination, the co-op’s Omori stressed they are also working hard to ensure the seafood consumers buy is safe.

Omori said the co-op has been conducting its own monitoring and no fish or marine products exceeding the government-set level of radiation contamination have so far hit the market.

“The radiation level of sand lance passed the limit, but that issue was handled properly,” he stressed.

Yet, even if fish caught off Tohoku prove to be safe, the region’s fishing industry has rough seas ahead.

According to the fisheries agency, approximately 22,000 out of 51,445 insured and registered fishing boats were damaged by the disaster in seven eastern prefectures.

Over 300 ports were damaged and an estimated ¥723 billion will be needed so they can be rebuilt, officials say.

Hokkaido, Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, Ibaraki and Chiba prefectures account for 54.7 percent of all the fish caught in Japanese coastal waters, and 33 percent of the nation’s 221,000 fishermen formerly operated in the area that was severely damaged by the quake and tsunami.

“It’s not like we can rebuild 20,000 fishing boats at once,” Omori explained of the magnitude of the damage.

“We will work hard, but the fishermen will be asked to share their boats with others for the time being.”

In different ports along the Tohoku coast, the co-op has set up temporary facilities to repair and rebuild ships, while debris that clogged some harbors has been cleared.

On June 29, fishermen in Miyagi Prefecture celebrated their first catch since the catastrophe struck.

But Omori urged the government to quickly provide major financial aid in order to avoid a total meltdown of the Tohoku fishing industry.

“The government needs to pass the supplementary budgets as soon as possible to help the local fishermen as well as related industries,” he explained.

Although Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s administration plans to submit the second extra budget to the Diet this Friday, some budgets needed for rebuilding ports and factories — which Omori said is a matter of life or death for many — is expected to be included in the next supplementary budget, which has yet to be drafted.

“The longer it takes for the bill to pass, the longer it will be before Tohoku fishermen can get back on their feet,” Omori added.