FUKUSHIMA – Since the March 2011 nuclear crisis, fishery workers in Fukushima Prefecture have had the unprecedented and daunting task of convincing consumers that local fish are safe to eat.
Fishing has resumed on a “trial” basis and the catches are gradually increasing. But seven years on, radiation checks are now part of their routine before shipping the fish to markets.
Japan has a cuisine culture that is often synonymous with sushi overseas, and consumers value not just the safety but the freshness of seafood.
There is one thing that they have apparently learned the hard way: Easing consumer anxiety takes more than just time and radiation checks. And it’s still a work in progress.
“Who could have imagined such checks would become necessary before the accident?” said Tadaaki Sawada, an official with the local fishery association in Fukushima.
“It’s possible to argue for the safety of fish by presenting the data we collect. But whether that can reassure consumers is a different story,” Sawada said.
The 3/11 earthquake and tsunami triggered the man-made crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, forcing fishermen to stop catching and selling fish from the region.
That wreaked havoc on an industry that had enjoyed coastal and trawl fishing for bonito, tuna, saury and flatfish among other species.
Two currents — the Kuroshio from the south and the Oyashio from the north — meet off Fukushima, creating good fishing grounds.
After years of radiation checks, the number of species allowed to be caught on a trial basis has climbed from the initial three to all species except 10, including a type of sea bream and sea bass.
As the region marks the seventh anniversary since the triple core meltdown, a turning point came earlier this month when about 100 kg of flatfish were exported to Thailand for the first time, more than a year after fishing in the species resumed.
Local officials hope the practice will boost the morale of the fishermen and help Fukushima rebuild its reputation and sales channels.
The plan is to ship as much as a ton of local flatfish — a local delicacy that used to fetch high prices in Tokyo and beyond — to Thailand, where it will be served at Japanese restaurants, according to people involved.
Yusuke Ujike has been part of the efforts to promote Fukushima products in Thailand. But he admitted that exporting fresh fish felt like a “sensitive” issue at first.
“As a company doing business in the food industry, we know how important food safety is,” said Ujike, president of Allied Corporation Co., a Yokohama-based trading firm.
Ujike looked into how radiation checks are conducted before he became convinced. Tapping into overseas markets should be a viable strategy, he thought.
“I can’t financially support the local industry but my hope is that exporting fish will become a catalyst for Fukushima,” Ujike said.
The Japanese government set the maximum limit for radioactive cesium in sea produce and other food at 100 becquerels per kilogram, which it says is stricter than international standards.
Since April 2015, no fishery products tested have exceeded that limit, according to the prefectural government.
The Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, for its part, has set an even lower limit of 50 becquerels per kilogram. Any readings beyond this limit will halt the shipments.
At the fish markets in Iwaki on the coast of Fukushima, consumers have more access than before to locally caught fish. But the volume is still low — the catches made in 2017 represent just over 10 percent of what they used to be before 2011.
Chiharu Ando, who has a 6-year-old girl, said her worries about Fukushima produce have eased because her knowledge has expanded.
“I was pregnant back then and hesitated to eat fish for the first two years or so,” Ando said. “Now I know how food items are checked.”
Recent consumer surveys show that concern over the origin of food is on the decline. In one survey, those who felt that food origin “matters or somewhat matters” fell from 68.2 percent in 2013 to 62.9 percent in 2017.
When asked the reason why, 27.9 percent in 2013 said they prefer buying items that do not include radioactive substances, compared with 16.5 percent in 2017, according to the surveys targeting over 5,000 Japanese in various parts of the country.
Certain progress has been made in eliminating the stigma attached to Fukushima. People in the fishing industry and risk-communication experts acknowledge the importance of keeping consumers updated and publicizing as much information as possible.
As time passes, the challenges facing the fishing industry could be manifold.
Bigger catches would mean a revival of local fishing activities, but they will also raise the need for fishery workers to conduct more radiation checks.
Uncertainty is looming over whether fish from Fukushima will be fairly valued because increased supplies may result in lower prices.
“First off, it’s important to see locally caught fish return to the shelves where they used to be, and hopefully sold in the same price range as before,” said Sawada of the local fishery association.
“We’ve come this far since the crisis but there is still a long way to go toward full-fledged fishing,” he added.