Staff writer

MIKUNI, Fukui Pref. — Shigeo Umeno thought he once watched the sea die.

Two winters ago the sea off Mikuni, where Umeno, 63, has caught fish such as sea bream and horse mackerel for 34 years, turned black as far as he could see. It was a few days after a Russian tanker sank 150 km off the coast in the Sea of Japan on Jan. 2, 1997.

The pungent smell of the oil came first, and the sea took on a yellow hue. Then, as the oil slicks reached the shore, the water turned deep black. Because the oil became too thick and hard to be sucked off with a pumping device, locals and volunteers scooped the oil from the beach where it accumulated in a layer as thick as 70 cm.

The Nakhodka, bound for Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, was carrying 19,000 kiloliters of fuel oil when it hit rough waters and broke in two. The overturned bow drifted to the shore off Mikuni. It was removed in late April 1997.

Rough weather hampered cleanup efforts, and the spill became one of the worst in the nation’s history. “I thought this was the end (of the sea),” said Umeno, head of the Oshima Fishermen’s Cooperative Union. “I wondered how many years it would take for the sea to return to what it was.”

But, surprisingly, Umeno said, the oil has disappeared in the past year, owing mostly to cleanup efforts and the rough wintertime waves of the Sea of Japan. “Ironically, the stormy weather that spread the slick, causing the disaster, also scattered the oil, making the water clean much faster than we expected,” he said. “I can’t believe that the blue water came back again in such a short period,” Umeno said, looking down from a hill near his office to the calm waters off Anto, where the bow of the Nakhodka drifted during the spill.

Watching occasional fishing boats pass by, Umeno reflected on last year’s catch. “We have never been damaged like this,” he said. “Nori” seaweed, which grows near the shore between January and April, was covered by oil and ruined. Harvests of “wakame” seaweed, collected in May and June, decreased 60 percent.

Fishermen also reported catching 20 percent fewer fish than usual, he said, adding that he is not sure if the decrease was directly related to the spill. But he said he does not think the oil spill’s effects ended with last year’s catch.

Every year around February, young sea urchin come up to the shore, and it is highly possible they got covered in oil and died, he said. “But we won’t know for two or three years when we catch the sea urchin.”

The year was also hard on the local tourism industry. “I was really worried when the number of visitors dropped about 30 percent in February immediately after the accident,” said Kunio Shimizu, working at the reception of a hotel that accommodates 450 guests in the center of Awara Onsen, a popular hot spring resort near Mikuni.

Shimizu’s inn was not an exception. In the two months after the accident, about 5,000 reservations for 60 inns in Mikuni were canceled, said Masahiro Hasegawa of the Mikuni Municipal Government’s tourism section. Last summer, the number of visitors dropped 10 percent from the previous year, also due to the bad weather. “But visitors started coming back in winter — the season for the crab that is popular in this area,” Hasegawa said.

Like other prefectures that have suffered from oil spills, Fukui has campaigned in large cities such as Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka to promote tourism and the safety of the area’s sea products.

In Mikuni’s Tojimbo district, known for its spectacular cliffs and coastal views, sightseeing buses with visitors from across the country frequent the area. “I can’t believe that a big disaster occurred near here,” said Yoko Araiwa, a tourist from Nagasaki Prefecture. “The sea is really beautiful and the cliffs are marvelous.”

A souvenir shop manager near the cliffs said, “I was very upset at the press coverage of the oil spill. They kept showing the black, muddy oil for so long. Who would want to come to such a place?”

One of the biggest issues that remains unresolved is compensation for those damaged by the spill. The London-based International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund has started to evaluate compensation claims from Japan, and estimates that they could add up to about 35 billion yen, said Shigeo Nakayama, disaster section chief of the Fukui Prefectural Government.

The prefecture itself is demanding about 2 billion yen, and municipalities in the prefecture are seeking an additional 1.6 billion yen for the expense of removing the oil, Nakayama said. Of that amount, the prefecture has so far been paid 453 million yen by the IOPCF, he said.

The prefecture’s fishery and tourism industries are also demanding damages. But evaluation of those claims will take more time. “Unless obvious connections between the damage and the incident are proved, the compensation will not be paid,” said Satoshi Horie, an associate professor of international law at Hokuriku Gakuin Junior College in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture.

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