Commentary on our new paper: fisheries in Fukushima post-disaster


A few days ago a paper I co-authored with Midori Kawabe of Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology on fisheries in Fukushima Prefecture after the 2011 disaster finally emerged in the public domain via the journal Coastal Management. This is the first peer-reviewed output to arise from the data I collected during my Japan Foundation Fellowship in the summer of 2014 – more are either under review or being written, but as a starting point we are very pleased to have got a paper in the bag that deals with an aspect of the Fukushima disaster that hasn’t been written about so much (in English at least). Namely, the effects on fishers and coastal communities themselves.

Hisanohama port, north Iwaki City

Hisanohama port, north Iwaki City

The academic peer-review process is by necessity slow and intensive (particularly so for social science in a context where there is relatively limited expertise), which is why it’s taken from me standing on the docks talking to fishers in July 2014 until now to get something published. Such is the complexity of the situation in Fukushima fisheries that it also took us the best part of 9,000 words to lay it all down in a way we felt did the situation justice. With both of those points in mind, what I’d like to do in this post is both summarise our main findings, and also reflect on what’s happened in Iwaki fisheries in the period between the paper being accepted and it going into print.

I say ‘Fukushima fisheries’, but in fact we focused in on fisheries in Iwaki City in the south of Fukushima Prefecture. The nuclear disaster has effectively split Fukushima coastal fisheries in two, with Soma to the north of Fukushima Dai’ichi and Iwaki to the south (in-between is an area of evacuated land, including the Tomikuma cooperative which was previously part of the Soma-Futaba fishing district). Commercial coastal fisheries in Fukushima remain embargoed because of the radiation, but trial fishing operations have been underway since late 2012 (Soma) and early 2013 (Iwaki) with a view to restarting fisheries over time. For this research, we interviewed local government researchers, fisheries cooperative managers and staff, and fishers themselves involved in the monitoring and trial fishing process, as well as academics, politicians and others who might be able to give additional perspectives. The interviews and discussions were supplemented with observing the landing of fish catches in Onahama, and attending consultation meetings between fishers and local government fisheries extension officers.

Fisheries extension officers (centre) attending the landing of a trial fisheries catch

Fisheries extension officers (centre) attending the landing of a trial fisheries catch

Perhaps the key thing we took away from the research was the significance of ‘local’ expertise to both fishers and consumers. Echoing similar work carried out by Rosemary McKechnie on the Isle of Man, a lot of trust appeared to be afforded in ‘experts’ perceived as local to Iwaki. For example, the fisheries extension officers working for Fukushima Prefecture’s Fisheries Section have a key role in engaging with fishers themselves on risks associated with post-disaster fisheries, many of them having lived and worked in the prefecture for decades. Fishers the world over are known for a reluctance to participate in formalised decision-making processes, so the informal interaction carried out by the extension officers (e.g. heading out to visit fishers face-to-face in their ports, discussing radiation results on a one-to-one or small group basis) seems key in both getting scientific information on radiation to the fishers, and also giving fishers a conduit for raising their concerns and/or suggestions about the re-start of fisheries.

Fisheries cooperative staff in radiation screening labs, New Onahama Fish Market

Fisheries cooperative staff in radiation screening labs, New Onahama Fish Market

The notion of radiation monitoring and screening data coming from the local level also seems important in rebuilding consumer confidence. It’s hard to know why exactly this is without talking to consumers themselves in more depth, but the hunch we get is that it has a lot to do with people like fisheries cooperative staff and fisheries extension officers being seen as having a personal and physical stake in the outcomes of the decisions taken. In other words, rather than proclaiming from afar that everything is safe to eat, scientists, managers and administrators living locally are embedded in the risks and uncertainties. That is, as they and their families eat the fish and breathe the air, there is extra impetus for them to be honest and open about the limitations of their knowledge and to take this into account accordingly when governing potential risks around restarting fisheries post-disaster. There’s also something to be said for the visibility of the process as well, fish being screened at the quayside when they land in an open, big-windowed room and then passed onto market with seals saying the batch has been screened. Yet the fishers we spoke to said they wanted this process to go further, so that consumers can know exactly where the fish have come from and where they can buy fish caught in trial catches if they want to.

Feeding back and learning about progress, summer 2015 (photo: Midori Kawabe)

Feeding back and learning about progress, summer 2015 (photo: Midori Kawabe)

How have things moved on since our paper was accepted back in spring? First of all, it’s important to remember there are still concerns about Fukushima Dai’ichi itself. I tuned in to Ken Buesseler speaking online a month and a bit ago, where he spoke about the water tanks on site and the Strontium 90 contained within them. Fishers themselves have been concerned about leaks of contaminated water into the sea through drains round the plant too, so there is a bit of worry as to what radioactive matter might end up in the sea should another emergency of any kind arise. This is a situation that will remain of concern for some time. Having said that, the number of fish ‘released’ for trial operations continues to rise as the number of species in which radioactive caesium has not been detected over a period of time increases, and in anticipation of this the brand-new fish market at Onahama has opened. I visited the new market this summer to feed back our results to the Onahama Danish Trawl Seines Fisheries Cooperative and Fukushima Prefecture Fisheries Section, and to carry out a bit of follow-up research that will be worked into subsequent publications.

Marine radioactivity information board, Aquamarine Fukushima

Marine radioactivity information board, Aquamarine Fukushima

From now I’d also like to think more about the processes that are being undertaken to engage with citizens on marine radioactivity, both locally and internationally. Iwaki-based NGO UmiLabo have been doing great work in conjunction with the Aquamarine Fukushima aquarium, catching and screening their own fish and running TabeLabo events to allow citizens to see how one measures radiation in marine produce and then try Fukushima seafood for themselves! Ken Buesseler at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Jay Cullen at University of Victoria have been running the Our Radioactive Ocean and Fukushima inFORM projects respectively, with the aim of engaging citizens on the west coast of the USA and Canada (and beyond) on Fukushima radioactivity. Critically engaging with these from a risk communication perspective is one of the next bits of work I’d like to do. And then there’s coastal fisheries in Soma, and also river fishing in the Kido River to the north of Iwaki which just restarted the other week…

But enough of the personal pronoun. Whilst there are a lot more papers to come, it has taken a heck of a lot of effort from an awful lot of people to get to this point, so this really is a team effort. So thanks to the Department of Marine Policy and Culture at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology (especially Prof Midori Kawabe and Prof Lou Xiaobo) for allowing me to piggy-back on their research, and to Arata Omura for helping us with the data collection. Thanks also to Fukushima Prefecture Fisheries Section and Fukushima Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations for help setting up the fieldwork, and to my wife Naoko Mabon who patiently cross-checks all the transcriptions and translations every time we have a paper ready to go off for review to make sure they are 100% bang-on accurate. Lastly, sincere gratitude goes to the fishers and fisheries cooperative staff themselves for giving their time under very difficult circumstances to participate in the research. At the very least, through work like this we hope to be able to pass on the evolving story of post-disaster Fukushima fisheries to a wider audience.

References (if unable to access please contact me:

Mabon, L and Kawabe, M (2015) ‘Fisheries in Iwaki after the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear accident: lessons for coastal management under conditions of high uncertainty?Coastal Management 43 (5): 498-518;

Mabon, L (2015) ‘Radioactivity and the city – what might Iwaki in Japan tell us about life under major environmental change?’ in Condie J and A-M Cooper (eds) Dialogues of Sustainable Urbanisation University of West Sydney: Pentrith, NSW pp278-281.

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One Response to Commentary on our new paper: fisheries in Fukushima post-disaster

  1. Pingback: Club motorsport in Japan – Garage Sakamoto revisited | The Zero Car

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