The wreckage of a 379-metric-ton tuna boat blocks the road to the deserted fish market in Kesennuma, once Japan's largest port for bonito and swordfish. More vessels litter the surrounding area, awaiting local cleanup efforts. Eventually the debris from last month's tsunami will be cleared away, but the industry may never recover. "Thirty years ago we used to think Japan was the No. 1 fishing country in the world, with the best catching and processing methods, but that's really no longer the case," says Ryosuke Sato, chairman of the Kesennuma Fisheries Cooperative Assn. "We've been in terminal decline."
Traffic at the port, 250 miles north of Tokyo, had dropped by 90 percent over the past 20 years as seafood imports rose, even before the country's northeastern coast was devastated on Mar. 11. Now the destruction of boats, harbors, and processing plants, coupled with concerns about radioactive contamination in marine life, threaten to hasten Japan's turn to imports for its most important food staple after rice.
The Japanese eat more fish per capita than residents of any other developed country—128 pounds annually, compared with a global average of 37.7 pounds. Fish accounts for 23 percent of the protein in the daily Japanese diet, vs. 4 percent in the U.S. To feed that habit, Japan has become the world's largest importer of fish, buying $14.4 billion worth in 2008, according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization. Japan consumes 7.5 million tons of fish each year and exports 0.5 million tons. Tokyo's Tsukiji, the world's largest fish market, stretches over an area the size of 43 football fields. Fish "is like water and air to us," says Masayuki Komatsu, a marine resources professor at Tokyo's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
The earthquake and tsunami, which left almost 28,000 dead or missing, disproportionately affected Japan's northeastern fishing ports and towns. In Iwate prefecture, the tsunami caused about $1.3 billion in damage to the fishing industry, according to government data. That's about 10 times the combined total for the prefecture's agriculture and forestry industries. Fishermen in Kesennuma, which had a population of 73,000, expect it to take as long as five years to rebuild the port and market. Those are central to the fishing industry, which provides 85 percent of the town's jobs. The city government says 837 townspeople died, and 1,196 were listed as missing as of Apr. 22. A further 5,838 people, or 7.8 percent of the population, are in evacuation centers. In addition to the destruction of maintenance and refueling facilities, about 40 fishing vessels were lost in the port, one of Japan's 10 largest. "There's so much damage, this is a crisis for the town and the fishing industry," says Sato, whose Kanedai fish company had sales of $114.9 million in Japan and China, and 230 employees, in 2010.
South Kesennuma, where most of the fish processing plants were located, was the first area to be hit by the tsunami after it passed the island of Oshima that creates the entrance to Kesennuma's harbor about two kilometers offshore. In the harbor, trawlers and a refueling tank were slammed together, spewing fuel. Fire spread across the fuel-water mix. The 50-meter-long Myojin Maru No. 3 is one of at least 10 giant vessels dumped around the town. It towers over gutted two-story buildings owned by fishing companies, about 500 meters from the fish market. "Companies may have the money to rebuild, but people are saying they don't want to come back," Yaeko Komatsu says as she gazes at the rubble at her seafood company employer's facility. "They say it's dangerous."
The fish market is planning to partially reopen in June to provide a sales floor for the expected return of bonito boats. Itsunori Onodera, a Diet Member representing Kesennuma, says reconstruction must happen fast to prevent workers from leaving the town for good.
The importance of fishing and of towns such as Kesennuma in Japanese culture belie the industry's declining status in the economy. Fishing contributes about 0.2 percent of Japan's gross domestic product, and the number of fishermen has dropped to about 200,000 from some 1 million after World War II, according to the National Graduate Institute's Komatsu.
For fishermen such as Tokio Takatsuka, who returned to Shiogama Port earlier this month to sell yellowfin tuna from the Pacific, that means hiring more crew members from the Philippines and Indonesia to make up for the shortage of Japanese applicants. They've come as part of a government plan to ease labor shortages, and signs at the port, 80 kilometers south of Kesennuma, are now written in Bahasa as well as Japanese. "My generation never considered doing anything besides fishing," Takatsuka, 62, says. "It's different for young people now."
Fishermen and consumers are worried about radiation from Tokyo Electric Power's Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant. Takatsuka recently sailed his boat more than 60 kilometers wide of the plant on its way to port, rather than hugging the coast, to reassure buyers. "It puts a cloud over the entire fishing industry, and Japan's food culture is suffering as a result," says Jeff Kingston, director of the Asian Studies Dept. at Temple University's Japan campus. "People are spooked."
At Tokyo's Tsukiji wholesale fish market, sales of fresh fish plunged in the weeks immediately following the quake. China, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong—countries that accounted for about 70 percent of Japan's fish exports in 2009—have banned fish imports from parts of Japan. Nonetheless, sales at Tsukiji recovered to pre-quake levels last week, indicating Japanese consumers are returning to fish.
The bottom line: The tsunami caused $1.3 billion in damage to the fishing industry in Iwate prefecture alone. Recovery could take years, if it happens at all.