Keeping the faith
At 6:30 a.m. Tsutou Kimura steers his boat from Momonoura, Ishinomaki City harbor toward oyster farming buoys tethered to hundreds of maturing oysters. Harvest season is October to March. He checks the condition of oysters and readies them for shipping, just as he has for nearly 40 years and his family has from one generation to the next.
The sea is serine and scenic as seagulls fly overhead. It’s a typical day in a peaceful fishing village in Japan except that, here seafood farms were devastated by the tsunami that followed the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
“The tsunami took everything away,” says Miura. “It took my boat, my oyster farming facility and my house.”
Believe it or not this 57-year-old oyster farmer is one of the lucky ones. While in 2011 Miura was only able to grow about 15 percent of the oysters he did the year before the tsunami, he says this year he is already at 70 percent of his normal yield.
“This is my second oyster season after the tsunami; I planted it last spring,” he says. “And this year’s oysters are very good in size and quality compared to last year’s.”
Before the tsunami, Ishinomaki was known as one of Japan’s biggest seafood producing towns, ranking third nationally in terms of yield. The tsunami took 2,762 fishing boats – 85.5 percent of the city’s total. Most marine product farming facilities were destroyed. The fishing and seafood industry in Ishinomaki lost an estimated equivalent of $692 million, according to the Ishinomaki City government.
Now, two years and eight months later, local fishermen are slowly rebuilding their businesses from scratch.
“The fact is that if you don’t take action to rebuild, nothing will move forward.” says Miura. “It takes so much to restore (a shellfish farming) facility to the condition it used to be in. But we have to keep looking forward.”
The government of Japan plans to pour the equivalent of $160 million U.S. dollars into rebuilding the tsunami-ravished fishing industry, including reconstructing smalland medium-size fish processing plants in Ishinomaki, according to the city government.
“The Japanese government is funding about 90 percent of the cost of rebuilding fishing boats and it is covering about 75 percent of the cost for other businesses related to the fishing industry to rebuild,” says Kunio Suno, president of Ishinomaki Fishing Market.
There is a catch, however. Local fishermen and shellfish farmers must first come up with money needed to rebuild on their own before being reimbursed by the government.
Kimura was lucky enough to get boat from an acquaintance. But he had to put down what amounted to about $80,000 for equipment to get his business up and running again. He says it took about three months and lots inspections and paper work before the government reimbursed him.
“Some fishermen could not rebuild their business because they could not come up with the money needed to rebuild before they get reimbursed.
The fishing industry in Tohoku region is not only coping with the damage from the tsunami. Large-scale fear of radiation from the quakestricken Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant has also taken its toll. In August, elevated levels of radiation were found in Fukushima, and rumors that things are worse than they appear are rampant.
Ishinomaki is about 72 miles away from the nuclear power plant. Some consumers have expressed concern that marine products such as shellfish that are caught or produced in the area maybe contaminated by radiation leaking into the ocean water from the plant.
“The specialty of our restaurant is raw oyster, so the rumors and fear about radiation are affecting our business,” says Toshiyuki Kobayashi, owner of Takaraya restaurant in nearby Matsuhima, Miyagi Prefecture. He reopened for the first time since the tsunami in December. “Tourists are slowly coming back, but business is only 70 percent of what it was before the tsunami. It is hard. We are still figuring out how to deal with these rumors.
“We have beautiful seasonal seafood from the ocean here in Miyagi Prefecture,” he added, “and I really want customers to enjoy it.”
Last year, the Japanese government set new food safety standards lowering the maximum allowable dose of radiation in food. Ishinomaki City government announces the results of weekly inspections for sea crops at Ishinomkai and Oshika fish markets on its website. As of Oct. 26, sampling tests showed that all marine products were well below the allowable maximum in Ishinomaki.
“Radiation fear will be there no matter what, as long as nuclear power plants exist,” said Miura. “And we should never let them resume operating the nuclear power plant in Onagawa (next to Ishinomaki) or anywhere in Japan.”
Ishinomaki City lost more than 3,000 lives and some people moved away after the tsunami. As the fishing industry slowly rebuilds, there is also a significant shortage of labor, according to the city’s Public Employment Security Office.
Kimura’s determination and success in rebuilding his business, however, are sign that sometimes the odds can be beaten. He says this year he succeeded in cutting a deal with Kirin Company, one of the biggest beverage companies in Japan. Now, he keeps busy shipping oysters to restaurants in Tokyo and elsewhere related to Kirin.
“My dream is to make the best oysters in Japan,” says Miura. “And I believe nothing can beat a man who has a dream.”