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Tsunami Quickens ‘Terminal Decline’ of Northern Japan’s Fishing Industry

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. Even after the debris from last month’s tsunami has been cleared away, the industry may never recover.

“Thirty years ago we used to think Japan was the number one fishing country in the world, with the best catching and processing methods, but that’s really no longer the case,” Ryosuke Sato, chairman of the Kesennuma Fisheries Cooperative Association, said in an interview in the town, 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of Tokyo. “We’ve been in terminal decline.”

Traffic at the port had dropped by 90 percent over the last 20 years as seafood imports rose, even before the country’s northeastern coast was devastated on March 11. Destruction of boats, harbors and processing plants, coupled with fears of radioactive contamination in marine life, threatens to hasten Japan’s turn to overseas for its most important food staple after rice.

Japanese eat more fish per capita than any other developed country, consuming 56.7 kilograms (128 pounds) annually, compared with a global average of 17.1 kilograms, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Fish accounts for 23 percent of protein in the daily Japanese diet, compared with four percent in the U.S.

Fish Broth

Consumption begins with breakfast in Japan, an archipelago of nearly 7,000 islands, where a traditional morning meal consists of rice and grilled fish. In addition to sushi, staples including miso soup also contain fish broth. To feed the habit, Japan is the world’s largest importer of fish, buying $14.4 billion worth in 2008, according to data from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.

“We’re the biggest fish lovers among the major industrial nations and the number one consumer,” said Masayuki Komatsu, a professor at Tokyo’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies specializing in ocean and marine resources. “It’s like water and air to us.”

Auctions at Tokyo’s Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market that stretches over an area the size of 43 football fields, influences prices all over the world, according to Sasha Issenberg, author of ‘The Sushi Economy.’

“It’s like a combination of Wall Street and Sotheby’s in the art market and a commodities trading floor,” he said.

Five Years

Last month’s 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 106.6 billion yen ($1.3 billion) of damage to the fishing industry, according to data from the government. That’s about ten times the combined total for the prefecture’s agriculture and forestry industries.

Fishermen in Kesennuma, which has a population of 73,000, expect it to take as long as five years to rebuild the port and market, central to a fishing industry that provides 85 percent of the town’s jobs.

The city government says 837 townspeople died and 1,196 were listed as missing as of April 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, the cooperative’s Sato said.

‘Not Alone’

“There’s so much damage, this is a crisis for the town and the fishing industry,” said the 69-year old Sato, whose Kanedai Co. fish company has sales of 9.4 billion yen in Japan and China, with 230 employees. A poster on the wall signed by wholesalers and customers reads: “You’re not alone, everyone is with you. Thank you always for the delicious fish.”

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 off shore. In the harbor, trawlers and a refueling tank were slammed together, spewing fuel. Fire spread across the fuel-water mix, creating an inferno.

The 50-meter-long Myojin Maru No.3, licensed to catch yellowfin and albacore tuna in the Indian Ocean, is one of at least 10 giant vessels dumped around the town. It towers over gutted two-storey 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, 53, said as she gazed at the rubble of her seafood company employer she didn’t identify. “They say it’s dangerous.”

Planned Reopening

The fish market is planning to partially re-open in June to provide a sales floor for the expected arrival of bonito boats. Longer-term plans depend on the amount of central government assistance, the cooperative’s Sato said.

Reconstruction needs to happen fast to prevent workers from leaving the town for good, Itsunori Onodera, a Diet Member representing Kesennuma, said in an interview at the city hall.

Like many ports in Japan, Kesennuma developed a reputation for handling specific kinds of fish. Ships from all over Japan came to the town to sell saury, sharks and tuna. By adding maintenance and refueling facilities, Kesennuma became one of Japan’s 10 largest fishing ports, Sato said.

The importance of fishing and towns like Kesennuma in Japanese culture belies the fishing industry’s declining status in the economy. Fishing contributes about 0.2 percent of Japan’s GDP, and the number of fishermen has dropped to about 200,000 from about a million after World War II, according to the National Graduate Institute’s Komatsu, also a former official at Japan’s Fisheries Agency.

Indonesian Workers

For fishermen like Tokio Takatsuka, who returned to Shiogama Port, 315 kilometers north of Tokyo and 80 kilometers south of Kesennuma, 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 come as part of a government plan to ease labor shortages, and signs at the port are now written in Bahasa as well as Japanese.

“My generation never considered doing anything besides fishing,” Takatsuka, 62, said in an interview last week next to his boat. “It’s different for young people now.”

Even as the government hurries to rebuild facilities, fishermen and consumers are worried about radiation from Tokyo Electric Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, Akira Sato, mayor of Shiogama, said in an interview after the town’s first fresh tuna auction since the March 11 earthquake. The fisherman Takatsuka sailed more than 60 kilometers wide of the plant on the way to the port, rather than hugging the coast, in order to reassure buyers.

About 520,000 liters of water with a level of radioactivity that was 20,000 times the legal limit leaked into the ocean between April 1 and 6, Junichi Matsumoto , a Tepco general manager, said last week.

‘People Are Spooked’

“It puts a cloud over the entire fishing industry and Japan’s food culture is suffering as a result,” Jeff Kingston, director of the Department of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Japan campus said. “People are spooked.”

The level of radioactivity in water leaked from the No. 2 reactor of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant was 20,000 times the regulatory limit, Tepco said on April 21. A total of 520 tons of contaminated water leaked between April 1 and April 6, said Junichi Matsumoto, a general manager at the utility.

At Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, sales of fresh fish fell to an average 583 metric tons per day in the week ended March 17, down 28 percent from a year earlier. The following week they dropped by 44 percent.

“If this continues for two or three years we don’t know what will happen to our bodies from consuming contaminated fish,” Yasuo Kawada, a 59-year-old manufacturing employee said in an interview. “I do worry.”

Fish Bans

Radiation from fish and lobsters near the U.K.’s biggest nuclear polluter suggest radioactive material dumped into the sea from Tepco’s Fukushima power plant isn’t a long-term health threat, according to Richard Wakeford, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute.

The Sellafield nuclear-processing plant in northwest England has discharged at least 320,000 times more radioactive material into the Irish Sea since 1952 than what Tepco released from Fukushima this month, according to Bloomberg calculations based on data from both sites. Still, average radiation doses by seafood-consumers near Sellafield over 15 years have been half the recommended limit, studies show.

That hasn’t stopped China, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong from banning fish imports from parts of Japan. The countries accounted for about 70 percent of Japan’s fish exports in 2009, according to Japan External Trade Organization figures.

“Radiation is a grim reaper, you can’t see it and you can’t smell it,” said Ken Banwell who has worked as a fish importer in Tokyo for 22 years. “I would say it would have a profound effect on sales from those areas.”

Still, overall sales at Tsukiji recovered to pre-quake levels last week, indicating Japanese consumers are returning to fish. Prime Minister Naoto Kan proposed a 4-trillion yen ($49 billion) extra budget that is likely to be the first of several packages to rebuild areas devastated by last month’s record earthquake and tsunami, which will include assistance for the industry, the government said in an April 22 statement.

“It’ll take three years, at most five years to rebuild the fish market,” said Sato, in his ninth year as head of the Kesennuma Fisheries Association. “In the meantime we need to know how we can continue to live here today, tomorrow, without jobs at plants which don’t exist anymore.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Stuart Biggs in Tokyo at sbiggs3@bloomberg.net. Kanoko Matsuyama in Tokyo at kmatsuyama2@bloomberg.net; Frederik Balfour in Hong Kong at fbalfour@bloomberg.net;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bret Okeson at bokeson@bloomberg.net

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