Iwate fisheries continue struggle to recover

Swift return to sea not in cards for fishermen at wrecked ports

by Takahiro Fukada

Staff Writer

One rainy day in early September, Shigeru Fujita, a 62-year-old fisherman, gazed at the devastated fishing port in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture.

The huge tsunami spawned by the March 11 quake destroyed two of his fishing boats and his warehouse in a matter of minutes. The town’s fish market was also wrecked and piles of debris remain untouched at the port in the city’s Taro district.

Fujita has joined with other fishermen to place an order for a new vessel — but doesn’t know when it will arrive or even when the port will reopen and he can resume fishing.

“I feel anxious every day,” Fujita said. “What is going to happen in the future?”

Iwate’s coastal towns are renowned for their fishing businesses, thanks to the Kuroshio Current from the south and the Oyashio and Tsugaru currents from the north that meet off the prefecture.

Taro fishermen primarily catch salmon, and harvest kelp, abalone and wakame seaweed. But the March tsunami destroyed about 900 of the city’s 960 boats, along with the fish market, as well as most of the wakame processing factories, refueling facilities and cranes.

It also wrecked portions of the huge tide embankments — locally dubbed the “Great Walls” — that had been erected to protect the city from tsunami.

The March disasters caused an estimated ¥7.5 billion in damage, according to a local fisheries cooperative association, which is trying to rebuild processing facilities, install new cranes and resume wakame cultivation.

But local fishermen have no idea when they will receive their new vessels.

The central and local governments, together with local fisheries associations, are subsidizing nearly the full cost of purchasing new vessels for fishermen in devastated coastal communities such as Miyako.

But this has generated a massive amount of orders for new fishing boats all along the Tohoku region’s tsunami-hit coast, and manufacturers are unable to meet the surge in demand, meaning the fishermen have to wait.

“Those in the fishing business can’t do anything until they receive their new boats,” said Masahiko Hatakeyama, a 43-year-old official in Taro’s local fisheries cooperative association in Miyako.

Hatakeyama is worried that less than 100 boats for fishing abalone — compared with the 540 before the tsunami struck — will be built and delivered to the tsunami-wrecked town before November, the peak season for catching abalone.

In Otsuchi, about 50 km south along Iwate’s coast, only 30 of the town’s 650 fishing boats survived the catastrophe, according to the local fisheries cooperative association.

All sea farm facilities were also destroyed and there are no plans to rebuild two of the town’s four fishing ports in the near future, the association said, adding total damages to its fisheries industry are expected to total billions of yen.

The association said it plans to harvest wakame seaweed next spring, but just as in Miyako, a shortage of vessels is preventing the town’s fisheries industry from recovering.

According to the Iwate Prefectural Government, out of the 111 fishing ports in the prefecture, 108 had their seawalls or moorings destroyed, and a total of 9,672 fishing vessels were destroyed by the tsunami. Nearly all of Iwate’s fish markets, fisheries processing facilities and sea farms were also damaged, it said.

The total amount of damages to the fisheries industry in Iwate Prefecture was estimated at more than ¥371.5 billion as of Sept. 2.

The central government has said that 319 fishing ports in seven prefectures ranging from Hokkaido to Chiba — about 10 percent of the country’s 2,914 fishing ports — were damaged in the March disasters.

But the coastal towns in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures bore the full impact of the monster waves, and nearly all of their ports were destroyed or severely damaged.

In addition, debris from the catastrophe, estimated at tens of millions of tons, is still floating off the coast or washing up at ports, the central government said.

Farms that cultivate sea products such as wakame, kelp, oysters and scallops, as well as large fixed fishing nets, were all damaged on March 11, it said.

The Iwate Prefectural Government said it is building temporary tide embankments and other port facilities, and has helped eight fish markets to reopen.

It also said 17 local fisheries cooperative associations are working to resume operations at sea farm facilities.

“We will restore (fisheries industry infrastructure) so that local fishermen can resume their fishing operations,” said Koen Osawa, a prefectural government official.

The central government plans to remove debris floating dangerously in ship lanes and near ports by the end of the current fiscal year, which ends next March, and restore most of the ruined port facilities by the end of fiscal 2013. It also aims to rebuild sea farms and large fixed fishing nets by the end of the fiscal 2012.

But the needs of local fishermen are not being fully addressed as central government officials have made few, if any, visits to damaged ports, the Otsuchi fisheries association said.

For example, the government is offering subsidies for fishermen to buy new boats, but while port facilities remain damaged they will be unable to process their catches, the association said.

Masato Koshita, an official at the association, called on central government officials to visit wrecked ports and inspect the damage firsthand before drawing up measures to revive the local fishing industry.

Some fishermen say they have already given up hope of continuing their business.

They include a 77-year-old Otsuchi fisherman who lost his job when his employer’s vessel was swept away by the tsunami. As his employer has been hospitalized since the disasters, the prospects of restarting his business appear dim.

His 75-year-old wife said she often sees people on television encouraging tsunami-hit communities to hang in there, but what they need to survive is money, not kind words.

The fish market near her temporary housing unit was completely destroyed in March, and all that remains are mountains of debris and twisted iron bars used to reinforce concrete.

“As there are no longer any fishing boats, (the local fisheries industry) will not survive,” she said. “No one can survive nature’s power.”