Fisheries rebound at sporadic pace


First In A Series

On a late February afternoon, 66-year-old Masakazu Haga prepared mackerel at his new temporary fish processing compound, erected on elevated ground in the Akahama district facing Otsuchi Bay in Iwate Prefecture. The compound stands out because it’s one of the few new structures in this town devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and a fire that followed.

Like many who lived along the coast of the Tohoku region, Haga lost his livelihood to the massive waves. After nearly a year, he, as well as few other local fish processors, with financial support from individual donors as well as the central and local governments, finally managed to secure space and equipment to restart his business.

But the expression on Haga’s face was less than radiant, despite how far he had come.

“It was a year that started in despair, and now I see a ray of hope, maybe. But maybe not. . . . It’s complicated, you know? Very complicated,” he said.

Haga’s mixed feelings may resonate with many Tohoku fishermen, farmers and others working in the industries that have supported their local economies. Despite their strenuous efforts to rebuild, the damage done has yet to be overcome.

People in the businesses that rely on the region’s fisheries are anxious and irritated because the more time it takes to recover, the harder it becomes to restore the industry, which was shrinking even before March 11.

According to the fisheries agency, the cost to the industry — including everything from damage to fishing vessels, ports, fish farming facilities to fish processing businesses — totaled some ¥1.26 trillion in the seven affected prefectures facing the Pacific. Of the 319 fishing ports that were submerged, 250 were located in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures.

The central government has so far devoted ¥818.3 billion to the restoration of the fisheries industry.

According to the latest figures released Feb. 8 by the agency, debris in the water and the facilities have been removed from most ports.

Berths, wharves and shipping lanes have been repaired to enable fishing vessels to bring in their catches. Of the 29,000 damaged fishing vessels, around 7,300 have been fixed so far.

About half of the grounds for harvesting seaweed and other products have been restored in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, agency figures show.

Restoring such marine infrastructure continues to be a pressing need, but at the same time, industry observers say rebuilding the fish processing business is crucial if the ports are to once again handle catches of the size they once did.

This is especially true for major ports such as Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture, where fishing vessels from all over Japan bring in their catches, including bonito, saury and sharks.

Kesennuma is the top port for bonito. In 2010, nearly 35,800 tons of it were brought in, far exceeding its rivals. Meanwhile, the local buyers were responsible for keeping prices of that fish and others competitive.

After the tsunami, the Kesennuma fisheries industry and local government immediately worked to repair the severely damaged port, clearing debris and mending wharves to handle the catches of the bonito boats from the end of June.

Because bonito boats from across the country brought their catches to Kesennuma to support its rebuilding efforts last year, the port was able to maintain its position as the country’s largest for bonito, although the total amount was smaller than the previous year.

Tsugio Murata, 65, a senior official with the Kesennuma Fishermen’s Association, a group of local wholesalers, said unless the fish processors recover, the vessels that used to come to Kesennuma will go elsewhere, where the fish will be purchased.

Ichiro Suzuki, 62, president of one of the Kesennuma-based fishing companies that take swordfish and bonito from the nearby sea, said after the earthquake and tsunami he had no choice but to take catches mostly to Choshi in Chiba Prefecture, which was only lightly damaged.

“Kesennuma had an established sales channel, and the prices of the catches were good and stable. So I really want to bring in the catches back to Kesennuma again,” he said.

According to data compiled by the National Federation of Fishery Processor’s Cooperative Associations, of the 278 marine processing factories that were submerged in Kessennuma, only 66 factories, or 24 percent, have managed to reopen, but on a very limited scale.

While government money goes to support the recovery of fish processors, many say regulations are proving to be an obstacle.

For example, in Kesennuma, land where many fish processors once stood is not zoned to receive subsidies to elevate the land, Murata said. The land must be elevated because of subsidence triggered by the earthquake. Without government support, individual businesses have to pay for this on their own. Some say the cumbersome process of applying for government subsidies also takes time.

Murata said the association can’t wait for the government to change the regulations or make exceptions, and will financially support fish processors to elevate the land, so more businesses can start rebuilding.

“Bonito fishing starts from May, and saury starts from August. These combined make up more than half the amount of the annual catches we handle. So we just can’t wait any longer. If we wait, we’ll lose competition to (other ports) and this city will not be able to survive,” Murata said.

The fish processors are also an important source of employment. Some locals have already left to find jobs. In the past year, Kesennuma’s population dropped nearly by 4,000 to around 70,000.

But for the fish processors, rebuilding their businesses has many challenging issues, too.

In Otsuchi, a town of 13,000, Haga is one of the first fish processors to reopen among the 18 rivals that were all hit by the tsunami. He said this was possible because he joined hands with three other local processors who are all beginning to rebuild.

In August, the four launched Tachiagare Domannnaka Otsuchi (Stand Up in the Center, Otsuchi). They sought donations online, promising that the group would repay supporters with fish products once they can rebuild.

Nearly 4,000 people have offered their support to date, and the group has received more than ¥81.6 million. In addition, the group’s application to the central government for financial support was also accepted in December after being declined twice.

“I wouldn’t have been able to get this far on my own,” said Katsutoshi Urata, 50, one of the group’s members whose fish processing factory is under construction.

While waiting for the year’s fishing season to arrive in a few months, Urata, who supplied sushi restaurants in the Kanto region, said he must look for new clients.

“After not being able to do business for a year, I lost my former customers, who already have other contracts by now. . . . I have debts from before, in addition to the huge loan this time. I’m worried about whether I can pay back all that in just over 10 years,” he said. “The anxiety from the challenges I face is bigger (than hope) these days.”

Otsuchi’s fish market, where local fishing vessels mainly land their catches, restarted operations in November but on a smaller scale than before. Haga, who has always handled only local catches, has high hopes that restoration work will continue swiftly and that Otsuchi fishermen will be able to start fixed-net fishing in June.

He also looks forward to the seaweed harvest season, which is about to start, to energize the fish market. But Haga said he knows that the fishermen still worry about more tsunami.

“Unless they catch fish from the ocean, we can’t do business. But I know everyone is anxious about tsunami,” he said. “If more tsunami hit, I don’t think I’ll be able to stand up again.”

In this series, we examine how the March 11 calamity changed the nation and what needs to be done to revive Japan as the first anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake approaches.