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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. 

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Nor is it clear how long it will be before those fishermen who do decide to tough it out can go back to sea.

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Even though Japan’s shipyards have promised to boost production, they can make only about 1,200 fishing boats a year at the moment, says Mr. Kikuchi. His province alone plans to order 5,000.

IN PICTURES: Japan Tsunami Anniversary

Neighboring provinces will probably need another 5,000, he estimates. It could be nearly a decade until the demand has been met, and even the younger fishermen cannot wait that long to go back to work.

Nevertheless, Kikuchi is optimistic. “The manufacturers have promised me almost all the boats I need by 2014,” he says. “And that has to be done, or our future is very uncertain." 

Consumer confidence?

Shinichi Sugiura is among those on the fence about buying a boat. 

“Consumers are overreacting about contaminated food,” he worries. “Even though it’s OK by legal standards, a lot of people don’t want to buy stuff from here … and we can’t change consumers’ minds.”

The government plans to introduce much stricter limits next month on permissible levels of cesium in meat and fish, close to World Health Organization recommendations, he points out, and local fishermen already guarantee a much lower level of radioactivity in their seaweed than the government tolerates.

“All we can do is to make our best effort to supply safe food,” says Kikuchi. “I hope that by showing this effort we will regain consumer confidence as soon as possible.”

Fear of radiation has also contributed to a fall in the fish catch coming into Ishinomaki, says Mr. Suno, because local boats no longer sail south into waters near Fukushima so their fishing grounds have shrunk.

But the main reason for the drop, he explains, is that there are no buyers: Almost all the fish processing plants in Ishinomaki were destroyed, and none of them have yet reopened.

IN PICTURES: Japan Tsunami Anniversary

Hisashi Takamatsu says he knows firsthand why. His small processing plant near the fish market withstood the tsunami, but all of his equipment was ruined. For nine months he waited for the government to announce a compensation package. Now he is waiting for his bank to grant him the loan he needs to start buying new machinery.

“They have not said no, but they work very slowly,” he complains. “I know there are a lot of people like me, but it is just taking too much time.”

Mr. Takamatsu is still hoping to reopen in June, if the bank keeps its promise to approve his loan by the end of this month, but he will be one of the first to do so. And he is not sure how many other processors will follow suit.  

Suno is chary about the future. "There are a lot of problems," he says. "It is hard for me to see how the fisheries industry here can ever recover its position before the tsunami."

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