Japan's fishermen struggle to stay afloat amid fish bans, radiated water releases

The discovery of fish carrying high levels of radioactive materials off the Pacific Coast is stoking concerns about the viability of Japan's seafood industry.

Toru Yamanaka/AFP Photo/Newscom
Fishermen unload their catch at the Hirakata fish market in Kitaibaraki, Ibaraki prefecture, Japan, south of the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on April 6. Levels of radioactive iodine and caesium in seawater immediately outside the plant have spiked, raising fears over marine life in a country whose diet depends heavily on seafood.

Japan’s fishing industry, already reeling because of the tsunami that damaged tens of thousands of boats, nets, equipment, and harbors along its northeast coast, is having to deal creatively to stay afloat as radiation-contaminated water is discharged into the ocean near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Just under half of Japan's roughly $3 billion in annual food exports comes from seafood, but overseas customers are shunning produce and fish even from parts of the country unaffected by the disaster. The northeast region accounts for around one-fifth of Japan’s fishing industry, but the disaster is hitting fishermen nationwide.

Some 18,500 fishing vessels were damaged or lost in northern Japan. In some areas, more than 90 percent of the industry was wiped out, according to an April 1 United Nations report. "The damage to fishing ports has also been severe," said the report. "Considering that agriculture and fisheries are one of the biggest industries in Tohoku Region, reconstruction of these sectors ... will be critical for the reconstruction of livelihoods."

'We have to do whatever it takes'

A 7.4 magnitude quake that shook Japan's northeast late Thursday may further complicate the industry's recovery.

Countries including the US and China have banned imports of certain foods from the radiation-affected areas, and this week India announced it was barring all Japanese-produced food for three months.

A fish exporter says he is now buying fish from the southerly island of Fukuoka, which is some 550 miles from Tokyo, "because it’s the only way I can do business,” says Shimpei, who exports to the US and asked to be identified by just his first name.

He usually works out of Tsukiji in central Tokyo, the world’s largest fish market. “Next week I’m heading to Korea to start sourcing fish from there. We have to do whatever it takes,” he adds echoing the sentiment that many fishermen have taken on.

“At Tsukiji, daily sales are down about 60 percent. At the worst stage, it was 80 percent. I’ve heard of about 10 wholesalers who have just given up and closed down their businesses – they felt there was simply nothing they can do,” says Shimpei, who was reach by phone in Fukuoka. Many others are just hanging on and hoping that things will eventually improve.

Some fishermen say they feel heartened that Japanese chefs at US restaurants are explaining to customers that their fish comes from areas of Japan not affected by radiation.

“There are many fundraising events for the disaster going on at their restaurants and they’re making a real effort to use Japanese fish for them as much as possible. However, many of our Chinese and Korean customers in the US are simply boycotting Japanese fish altogether.”

Business is down about 20 to 30 percent, says Shimpei, "but we’re lucky because of the support we’re getting from US-based Japanese chefs. I’m hearing exports at some companies are down 70 to 80 percent.”

According to Shimpei, for the companies exporting to Asian markets such as Hong Kong, China, Singapore, and Thailand, it’s even worse. “At least in the US, businesses basically follow the guidelines. In those markets, they don’t want to hear explanations that the fish comes from safe areas and isn’t affected by the nuclear problem – they just won’t touch it.”

Radioactive waters

Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the utility that operates the Fukushima plant, said Wednesday it had finally plugged a crack in the seaside pit at the No. 2 reactor with sodium silicate, a form of water-glass. But it is still releasing some 11,500 tons of low-level radiated water into the ocean to give it room to store more highly contaminated seawater that has been used to cool the reactors.

Though Japan’s officials insist the low-level dumping will have minimal impact on the environment, both local fishermen and environmental experts say that they are not happy with the decision.

A group of individuals who work in the fishing industry in the northeast visited Tepco headquarters this week to deliver an open letter to management, in which they called the ongoing release of radioactive water into the ocean “an unforgivable act.”

“The water is being dumped directly into the sea without checking for plutonium, which is unacceptable,” says Lauri Myllyvirta, an energy expert with Greenpeace who is currently working with the Japanese arm of the environmental organization to monitor the effects of the radiation leaks from the Fukushima plant.

“The information that has been released is alarmingly limited as it covers only the soluble substances such as cesium and iodine. However, there are other particulates that are being released in water from the plant, which has come into direct contact with the fuel rods, and there is no data on them,” Mr. Myllyvirta says.

He also says measurements taken from the sediment on the seabed, where deposits of radioactive material are likely to build up, haven't been released.

While those who work in Japan's fishing industry criticize the authorities for being too strict in setting the levels of radiation in fish that are potentially harmful to humans – the same levels it has dictated for vegetables – Myllyvirta says they are not going far enough: “The Japanese government is maintaining as its safe level one that is double international standards.”

“Cesium has a half-life of 10 to 20 years in the ocean, based on data recorded after Chernobyl. The highest concentrations of this are likely to build up in fish higher up the food chain, such as tuna. They are predatory fish that can live for 15 years and the buildup in their muscles will occur after a considerable time lag,” says Myllyvirta.

Fishermen working in Ibaraki Prefecture, adjacent to Fukushima, this week caught specimens of an eel-like fish known as kounago, or young sand launce, that had double the new limit of iodine-131 in them. The crews have voluntarily decided to stop catching the fish. On Saturday, levels of iodine-131 in seawater tested directly outside the plant were found to be 7.5 million times the legal limit, though experts say the substance dilutes rapidly in the ocean.


The government has announced that Tepco is to establish a fund of up 1 trillion yen ($11.7 billion) to cover the cost of cleanups and compensation after the crisis at Fukushima. Provisional payments to evacuated households are already being scheduled, with more for affected farmers on the way. Compensation for fishermen is now to be added to the list.

However, even once payments are made and the area is declared safe again for fishing, fishermen worry that the stigma of the name Fukushima will now blight the local industry for decades to come.

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