UM to Fukushima: Nuclear meltdown, rumors plague Japanese fishermen

A group of fishermen from Nakosogyoko pull in a net full of translucent sardines. They have not been able to sell the fish they catch since the nuclear disaster on 3.11, but every Monday they catch fish to test them for radiation. (Parker Seibold)

Editor’s note: Each year, Montana Journalism Abroad gives student journalists an opportunity to hone international reporting skills through on-the-ground coverage of a timely issue. This year’s class just returned from Fukushima, Japan, where students wrote about the effects of the nuclear crisis that followed the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. In the coming days, Missoula Current will present the University of Montana students’ work. You can access their complete report online at this site. We begin by going back to the day of the disaster.

On a sunny day off the coast of Fukushima, four fishermen pulled a net full of tiny, translucent sardines onto their boat. Laughing and smoking, they pounded the net with their fists.  It was a good catch.

“Delicious,” one fisherman said, but these sardines were not caught to be eaten. The entire day’s catch would be handed over to the Japanese government and tested for traces of nuclear radiation.

These men live and work in Nakasogyoko, a small port on the southern border of Fukushima Prefecture. From just beyond their port, you can see boats in Ibaraki, the neighboring prefecture. Fukushima boats and Ibaraki boats look the same. They fish side-by-side, sometimes from the same schools of fish — streaks of yellow and red on that show up on both boats’ fish finder screens.

But the stigma surrounding the name Fukushima means the boats north of the border have fewer opportunities to sell their catch, and always at a lower price. Radiation continues to seep from the malfunctioning Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the ongoing catastrophe known in Japan by the date the earthquake and tsunami hit — 3.11– March 11, 2011.

Radioactive cesium levels found in Fukushima fish have dropped significantly since March of 2011.  Now, radiation doesn’t show up in fish as much as fear of it shows up in the attitudes of consumers.

“Prejudice is the word of Fukushima,” said Hisashi Maeda, chief manager of the Fukushima Prefecture Association of Fishery. He said he feels a strong sense of stigma when he tells people his job title.

Each week, fishermen at this small port receive a stipend to catch fish for data. The fish are sent to a shiny lab where they are neatly packaged and pushed through pastel-colored machines that measure radiation levels. The data is collected and recorded for the city to track, but no one eats the fish.

Sometimes fish caught by Fukushima boats from other ports are sold as food, but only after they have met what the fishermen insist is the strictest standard for radiation in the world: 100 becquerels per kilogram.

The becquerel is a unit measuring radioactive decay, and some places allow fish to go to market with as much as 2,000 bq per km. Despite the Japanese government’s strict standards, customers still avoid fish from Fukushima prefecture. The only way for them to make it to the market is to beat the market price. That makes it all the harder for Fukushima fishermen to make a living.

A group of fishermen pull out of Nakasogyoko. This port is right on the border of Fukushima Prefecture and Ibaraki Prefecture, but because it is on the Fukushima side, Nakasogyoko port is subject to many more regulations than ports just over the border. (Parker Seibold)

It wasn’t always this way. Fukushima was once home to a profitable fishing industry. The annual income of the Onahama Fish Market in Fukushima Prefecture averaged at about 20 million yen before 3.11. But in 2012, the year after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, income dropped to 4.8 million yen. Earnings are recovering. Slowly. In 2016, the fish market made about 10 million yen, just half of its normal income.

“I worry that even when radiation is low and I can sell my fish, customers won’t buy because the name ‘Fukushima’ will be on the package,” Tomo Komatsu said. He has been fishing for about 30 years. In the years before 3.11, he went out on the boat every morning. Now, he can only work twice a week, catching fish for data.

Japan is an island nation. Its history and culture is deeply intertwined with fish and the ocean. For these men, “fisherman” was not just a job title. It was their identity. Their fathers were fishermen. Some of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers fished from the same coast.

“Everything changed after the disaster,” Komatsu said. On work days, he wakes up at 5 in the morning and eats breakfast with his 92-year-old mother. They keep a calendar in the living room of their small wooden house with every Monday circled in permanent marker.

“Radiation testing day,” he explained.

With his new free time, Komatsu watches television, waters his plants or walks around the village. This isn’t the life he envisioned when he took over his father’s fishing boat 30 years ago. Still, he says he is will not leave his town, despite the challenges.

“That’s the fisherman’s life. We cannot just move to another place and leave our boats. The boats and fishermen are one,” Komatsu said.

Fisherman Tomo Komatsu and his mother, Hatsui Komatsu, sit in their living room with their dog Marine. Hatsui has lived in her house in Nakoso for more than 60 years. She has other children but they have moved away. Tomo Komatsu has stayed to take care of her and to keep his job as a fisherman, even though he can no longer sell the fish he catches. (Parker Seibold)

At the larger Onahama port, fishermen say they hope that the rumors will die with time. Slowly, their efforts to test fish have shown results. At first, 53 percent of the fish caught right off the shores of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant exceeded the Japanese limit of radioactivity. By 2014, that had fallen to .06 percent, according to NHK, Japan’s public news outlet.

Immediately after the accident, fishermen could only keep three types of fish and those had to be caught 50 kilometers out to sea or more. Slowly, the number of fish species they can catch, and the size of the allowable fishing ground, have expanded. But the pace of change, six years after 3.11, is frustrating.

Maeda, the director of fisheries, feels the pain of the men — and the boats — stuck too long on shore.

He is also in charge of the large wholesale fish market at Onohama. He knows the agony of too much time and too few fish and is pushing to hasten change. In April, his market began auctioning fish from the test waters, an effort to reduce the stigma of Fukushima fish, expand marketing networks and breathe life back into the market.

It was a small sale — just 2.3 tons of 24 varieties of seafood — but it marked the first time since 3.11 that fish had been offered at auction at Onohama. Before 3.11, Onohama fishermen caught and sold 52 species of fish. Maeda would like to return to that rich variety.

“In the future, it will be better,” Maeda said. “I just don’t know when.”