The oystermen and the sea, one year after Japan's tsunami
Oystermen in the Japanese hamlet of Samurai-hama should be enjoying a profitable harvest this time of year. But the March 2011 tsunami destroyed much of their equipment and is testing their willingness to persevere.
As a wintry sun rose over this wooded cove on Japan’s northeastern coast, three men in oilskins jumped from their launch to secure a rope around a waterlogged tree snagged on the rocky shore.Skip to next paragraph
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At this time of year, the three members of the Sugiura clan that populates this remote hamlet should be wrapping up a profitable harvest of the oysters in the bay beyond the village harbor.
Instead, they have spent the year since the March 2011 tsunami that destroyed their oysterbeds clearing debris from the sea. And though a glimmer of optimism remains for some, few of them seem to have the heart any more to make the financial commitment it would take to return to the business that has been their family livelihood for three generations.
“I’ve been an oysterman all my life,” says Shinichi Sugiura, staring out to sea. “But my boat sank in the tsunami and I am still wondering whether to buy a new one or just change jobs. I worry about it every day.”
Up and down this coast, dotted with tiny harbors like Samurai-hama, it's a similar story: A way of life already threatened by an exodus of young people has experienced another severe blow as a result of last year's earthquake and subsequent tsunami. A year after the disaster, many are still uncertain about the future of the industry. Some are putting their faith in government promises of compensation, others are thinking about changing their profession altogether.
Today, only three of the 10 fishing boats that once moored at the Samurai-hama wharf still bob in the calm lee of the breakwater. The others sank last March.
In Miyagi Province, where Samurai-hama is situated, only 1,000 of 12,000 family-owned fishing boats survived the tsunami undamaged, according to Shinetu Kikuchi, local head of Japan Fisheries, a government-supported fishermens’ cooperative.
Equally serious for a region where 15 percent of the population once worked in the fisheries industry is the fact that almost all the processing plants that once lined the shore in the provincial capital, Ishinomaki, were washed away.
And lurking in the back of just about everybody’s mind here is the fear that the region’s highly prized seafood may not find favor again with Japanese consumers, given its proximity to the Fukushima nuclear power plant 75 miles south of here, where three reactors damaged in the tsunami are still leaking radioactivity.
“There is anxiety that fish from this area are contaminated,” says Kunio Suno, the manager of Ishinomaki’s wholesale fish market, even though he says daily tests since the market reopened last July have given all its goods a clean bill of health.
To buy a new boat or not ...
Although the government has pledged to cover nearly 90 percent of the cost of a new boat for those who lost their old ones in the tsunami, $80,000 (the minimum remaining cost) that each fisherman would have to pay himself is too daunting a prospect for many of them.
“They’d have to take out huge loans and few of us are young anymore,” points out Takayuki Sugiura, who says his own boat survived by a miracle. “By the time the loans are paid off and business is stable again, they’ll be too old to work.”