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. 

Dylan McCord/AP
A Japanese home adrift in the Pacific Ocean, days after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan's east coast, March 13, 2011. Scientists believe ocean waves carried away 3-4 million tons of the 20 million tons of debris created by the tsunami that slammed into Japan after a magnitude-9.0 earthquake nearly a year ago.

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.

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.” 

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

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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