Industry recovery: Japan’s lessons for Ecuador

Ecuador has suffered a massive earthquake that has done untold damage to the country’s seafood sector. Yet compared with Japan, which suffered an even more-damaging earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown in 2011, recovery for the industry will be more straightforward.

Devastated Pedernales, on the northern coast, has a shrimp industry accounting for about a tenth of the country’s pond acreage. About 6,500 hectares of Pedernales ponds were damaged, and will likely take about nine months to repair. But most of the shrimp industry’s infrastructure, including hatcheries, is on the southern coast, around Guayaquil. As a more populated area, Guayaquil has more people made homeless by the quake, but the level of damage to buildings, including aquaculture facilities, is much less there.

As far as the seafood industry goes, the tuna port city of Manta is the big hit. Manta possesses the largest fishing port in Ecuador, and its main economic activities are tuna fishing, canning and processing. International tuna corporations including Bumble Bee, Van Camps, British Columbia Packers, and Conservas Isabel, as well as the Ecuadorian processor Marbelize, have factories in the city.

Indeed, Manta has the largest tuna fleet in South America, as well as the largest volumes of seafood landings and processing. The former U.S. anti-narcotics airbase near the city, Eloy Alfaro International Airport, is now used for air-freighting high-value fish to international customers. That airport, with its collapsed air-traffic control tower, is closed to commercial flights until further notice, but remains open for flights carrying humanitarian assistance.

Pete Dills, a U.S. expat living in the capital, Quito, said the country was still assessing its losses.

“People have been donating lots of food and water that is getting loaded into trucks and convoyed to areas on the north coast,” Dills said. “We'll see how things develop over the next few weeks or months. If the government doesn't get things organized fast it will be pretty bad. It's such a widespread area. People are getting some food and water but I heard the stench of dead people is really strong.”

The port of Manta is operating, and unlike the case in Japan, the vessels are still there. The major structural casualties are concrete buildings, roads and power. Many of the coastal roads are damaged and closed. The major obstacle to the tuna trade, then, will be whether the processing plants are damaged or intact, whether they have power or not, whether the lives of the workers are normalized enough for them to show up, whether the local roads allow transport.

What lessons for recovery does Japan’s experience offer?

Help your competitors: In Japan, after its disaster, many seafood processors shared surviving factories with their competitors, sometimes allowing this without pay and for a long as a few years. This community spirit may have stemmed from the fishing cooperative system by which Japan’s fisheries are managed. If it is emulated, the industry will rebuild faster.

Don’t expect government money to flow quickly: Japan had a split legislature. The opposition LDP held up budgets, including aid money, in order to force early elections. In the end, the government mainly covered the rebuilding of infrastructure while much restoration of industry was achieved through more nimble targeted international aid. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa should be able to offer stronger leadership, but his ability to provide monetary aid may likewise be limited by the country’s low reserves and limited international borrowing power, the result of a 2007 default on the national debt.

City planning takes a long time: Many issues have prevented the rapid rebuilding of homes in Japan, resulting in long-term “temporary” housing. Well-intentioned efforts to make a better city layout have sometimes resulted in long negotiations, preventing quick approval of building plans. It may be best not to try to reform city layouts, but to quickly clear and rebuild to the previous plan.


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