7 Mars 2016
March 7, 2016
THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
Fukushima fishermen have been stuck in a vicious circle over the past five years. Whenever a glimmer of hope arises that they can resume normal operations, something happens at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant that quashes the optimism.
“Just when we thought the fishing environment had progressed one step forward, it would take a step back,” said Yukio Sato, a 56-year-old fisherman. “The past five years have been such a forward and back zigzag.”
Although radioactivity levels in their catches have fallen considerably, the fishermen are still struggling to convince consumers that the fish are safe to eat.
Any leak of radioactive water from the Fukushima No. 1 plant--and there have been many--into the Pacific Ocean reinforces the negative image of Fukushima fish.
The catches have dropped in size, prices have plummeted and some fishermen are now giving up hopes of making a living from the fishing grounds.
Sato used to take his fishing trawler out five days a week.
But fishermen in the prefecture were forced to suspend operations immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. Radiation levels exceeding national standards were detected in the fish they caught.
“We could not catch the fish that we knew were swimming in those waters,” Sato said. “It was just so frustrating.”
Sato now takes his fishing trawler out twice a week.
The waters off Fukushima Prefecture are bountiful because two currents collide there. Close to 200 different types of fish can be caught in those waters.
In early February, Sato’s boat and other trawlers returned to the Matsukawaura fishing port in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, carrying Pacific cod, monkfish, snow crab and other fish.
Sato’s catch totaled about 500 kilograms, and the fish were sent to local shops as well as the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.
“It would be great if we could return to the fishing of the past while I am still alive,” Sato said.
The catch from the coastal waters is still only about 6 percent of the levels before the nuclear accident.
In June 2012, more than year after the triple meltdown at the nuclear plant, experimental operations started to determine the market reaction to fish considered safe in terms of radioactivity levels.
Despite that effort, problems with radiation-contaminated water flowing into the Pacific continued.
Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, is still facing difficulties bringing the water problem under control. Every day, tons of groundwater flow under the Fukushima plant and become contaminated with radiation.
At one time, TEPCO came up with a plan to pump up the groundwater and dump it into the ocean before it could reach the plant.
Local fishermen opposed the plan because even dumping safe water into the Pacific would hurt the image of the fish caught in coastal waters.
But if such measures were not taken, the volume of contaminated water could increase to levels that would make it impossible to process.
In March 2014, the fishermen reluctantly agreed to the water bypass plan.
However, a year later, contaminated rainwater spilled outside the port waters. TEPCO’s failure to immediately disclose that problem refueled general concerns about contaminated water.
Other measures have since been taken to deal with the contaminated water, but according to one individual in the fishing industry, “No matter what is done, only the negative image that arises from that time is highlighted.”
Fishermen now depend on compensation from TEPCO for their daily livelihoods. Even those who are not engaged in experimental operations receive compensation equivalent to about 80 percent of their actual catch before the nuclear accident.
With no prospects for a resumption of full-scale operations, some fishermen are not bothering to take part in the experimental operations.
The radioactivity levels in the water and fish have steadily declined.
Three months after the nuclear accident started, half of the fish sampled had radioactivity levels exceeding the national standard of 100 becquerels per kg.
In 2015, 8,500 samples were tested; only four exceeded the national standard.
The decline in radioactivity levels has led to an expansion in the types of fish that can be caught through experimental operations, from three to 72.
While a simple comparison is not possible because the catch level in Fukushima is so low, fish caught through experimental operations fetch between 80 and 90 percent of the prices paid for the same fish types caught in other prefectures.
“With the brand image having fallen so low, it would not be profitable even if operations were allowed to expand,” said Takashi Niitsuma, 56, an official with the Iwaki city fisheries cooperative.
Fish caught further out to sea are also affected. Regardless of where the fish are caught, if they are brought to Fukushima ports, they are classified as being from Fukushima. That has led fishermen to avoid anchoring at Fukushima ports.
According to Fukushima prefectural government officials dealing with the fishing industry, about 5,600 tons of fish, excluding those caught in coastal waters, were brought into Fukushima ports in 2014. The figure is only 40 percent of the pre-nuclear accident level.
The Aquamarine Fukushima aquarium in Iwaki holds monthly events to show that fish caught off Fukushima are safe. At one recent event, a fat greenling was placed in a device to measure radiation levels while visitors looked on. A message flashed on a screen: “None detected.”
“Fish born after the nuclear accident will never exceed the central government’s standard,” said Seiichi Tomihara, 43, a veterinarian at the aquarium.
Local residents are involved in the project to dispel doubts about the trustworthiness of information provided by TEPCO and the central government.
“I first of all want people to understand the fact that the waters off Fukushima are steadily recovering,” Tomihara said.
(This article was written by Takuya Ikeda and Naoyuki Takahashi.)