Fear of radiation a greater obstacle to Japan’s disaster recovery than remaining damage

Published on
April 10, 2018

On 11 March, the seventh anniversary of the great East Japan earthquake and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was recognized. Amidst rebuilding, excessive fear of radiation now poses a greater obstacle to recovery than actual physical damage.

Damage to fishing industry infrastructure occurred mainly in the three prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima. Some piers were damaged in Hokkaido, Aomori, and Chiba prefectures, but these have all been reconstructed.

The government’s early efforts were focused on resuming port functions, such as by clearing debris from the ocean floor and from the port areas, and by raising subsided land. Additionally, measures against future disasters were taken, including relocating residential areas to higher ground, building secondary inland access routes, and raising the height of seawalls.

The most recent Japanese government white paper on fisheries – which considers the trends of the fiscal year ending in March 2016 and the policy for fiscal year 2017 – reports that total landings at wholesale fishery markets in the major landing areas of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima reached 70 percent in terms of volume and 90 percent in terms of value of the level before the earthquake between February 2016 and January 2017. 

Of the 319 fishing ports in seven prefectures affected by the natural disaster, 316 ports were fully or partially operational as of the end of January 2017: 108 in Iwate, 141 in Miyagi, and 8 in Fukushima. However, in some cases, limited landing capacities were involved – for example, some docks are only available at high tide and some docks have been repaired, but the breakwater still needs restoration. Additionally, landing was still not possible at that time at one port in Miyagi, and at two ports in Fukushima.

Of 804 fish processing facilities in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima that wished to reopen, 729 facilities had actually reopened as of the end of December 2016. In some cases, aging owners chose to retire and close their businesses rather than take on new loans for rebuilding.

Regarding replacement of fishing boats, the government’s target of 12,000 boats in the three prefectures was reached by the end of fiscal year 2013, but by the end of December 2016, Fukushima had only 362 boats. Fishing in Fukushima had been suspended due to releases of radioactive cooling water, and has only gradually been resumed on a limited scale.

Aquaculture has been slow to recover. Kelp beds were damaged by the tsunami, so seaweed harvesters have been switching to the cultivation of wakame seaweed, however, rough ocean conditions carried off some of the growing seaweed, which slowed efforts. Kelp production was at 52 percent of pre-disaster levels in August 2015, down from 61 percent in 2013, while wakame was at 79 percent, down from 88 percent in 2013. Oyster production has resumed and reached 59 percent of pre-disaster levels, but is limited by a lack of shuckers. Scallop and silver salmon farming were at 83 and 88 percent, respectively.

All 22 wholesale markets in landing areas of Iwate and Miyagi prefectures have resumed operations, but in Fukushima, only one has been repaired while 11 lie idle. With fishing still limited in Fukushima, there was not an urgent need to open more markets there.

Debris in fish farms has been largely cleared, but debris interfering with set net operations has only been cleared in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, and not in Fukushima.

Overall, it appears that most reconstruction outside of Fukushima has been completed. It is the reduced marketability of Fukushima seafood due to fears of radiation that has limited further work there.

The national government, in cooperation with the prefectural governments and fisheries cooperatives concerned, implements monitoring of radioactive materials in fish and fishery products and releases the results. The number of samples in which radioactive materials above the standard limits have been detected has decreased over time. In marine species, after June 2015, there have been no samples collected in Fukushima that exceed the standard limits. In other prefectures, no samples of marine species have exceeded the limits since December 2014. 

As a result, trial fishing was started off the coast of Fukushima, and the catches are being sold. Target species of the trial fishing numbered 97 and the total catch in fiscal year 2016 increased to 2,100 tons. Flounder is the most promising species and was initially sold by private contract, but since March of 2017, has been sold at auction in the market. Fukushima flounder was exported to Thailand in February—the first post-disaster export of Fukushima seafood, and Russia this month lifted its ban on Japanese seafood from six prefectures, and from Fukushima as well if accompanied by government-issued documents showing that it has been tested and found free of radiation.

Rebuilt processing facilities are designed to higher safety standards than before, according to Ian Gleadall, Professor of Applied Marine Biology at the Graduate School of Agricultural Science at Tohoku Universityin Sendai.

“At many ports along the affected areas there are now conveyor-belt sampling machines for testing the amounts of radiation in seafood (systems newly-developed following the accident by institutions such as Tohoku University)," Gleadall said. "The prefectures seem to have rigorous monitoring in place and radiation levels are reported regularly by the authorities." 

“In addition, many of the landing ports were destroyed by the tsunami and have now been rebuilt to HACCP or pre-HACCP standards," he added. "For example, I used to freely wander around many ports in the Sendai area with students before the tsunami, but now the public are strictly banned (e.g. at the huge new facilities built at Ishinomaki) and we can only enter by appointment as part of a visitor group, complete with protective cleanware clothing and disinfectant footwear baths. Trucks entering the landing and sorting areas are also routinely disinfected.”

Gleadall said that the continued South Korean ban on seafood imports from the area is particularly damaging recovery for seasquirt aquaculture, because South Korea was the major buyer of seasquirts before the disaster. Producers are having to trash their products because they can't sell them, Gleadall noted.

Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan   

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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