Fukushima fisheries: virtual field trip

This is a virtual field trip I’ve pulled together for the Marine Pollution class at SAMS to understand the effects of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster on fisheries and fishing communities on the coast of Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. Anyone who wants to use it for teaching or their own learning is very welcome to!

First, let’s look at the overall map to see where everything is:

1. Nakanosaku

We are starting our tour in the fishing port of Nakanosaku in the south of Fukushima. Nananosaku is a good example of what fishing ports and fishing villages in Fukushima look like, which is why we are starting here. As with most other fisheries on the Fukushima coast, Nananosaku Fishing Port is still operating on a trial basis following the 2011 triple disaster, however there are also several community projects along the main street aimed at revitalising the community.

Have a look around!

2. Fukushima Prefecture Fisheries Research Station

These are the main laboratories where marine produce is taken for monitoring. They are run by the regional government in Fukushima, with samples being collected from the sea with support from fishers. Once marine produce has been declared free of radioactive caesium for a certain period of time, it can be released for fishers to catch in trial commercial operations. As of autumn 2020, nearly all species of fish which can be landed in Fukushima ports have been released for trial operations.

You can see what the monitoring process looks like here:

3. Haragama Fishing Port

Haragama Fishing Port is one of the larger fishing ports in Fukushima Prefecture. It’s located in Soma, a town up in the north of Fukushima Prefecture. Fishing is a key component of local identity in Soma, and trawler captains in Soma are especially proud of their ability to go fishing in all weathers – including storms. As such, the suspension of fisheries following the nuclear accident, and its subsequent restart for trial operations, is a matter of local pride and identity as well as economics. Have a look at these short films on the process of trial fisheries operations in Soma fishing district:

4. Ukedo Fishing Port

Our next stopping point is Ukedo Fishing Port in Namie Town. Unlike the ports we visited earlier in the tour, Ukedo Fishing Port lies in the area that was evacuated after the nuclear accident, and Namie Town was not reopened for settlement until 2017. However, fishing has returned to Ukedo, and the fish market at the port reopened in April 2020. The news clip below shows the first day of sales at the market since the 2011 disaster:

It’s also interesting to have a look round Ukedo Fishing Port for two reasons. Firstly, if you use the ‘time lapse’ function, you can see how the port has been reconstructed after having suffered significant damage from the tsunami. Second, if you look inland, you will see that none of the land around the port has been re-settled since 2011. This is a stark reminder of the wider challenges facing the Fukushima coast against which the rehabilitation of local fisheries happens. These include ongoing radioactive contamination, the need for reconstruction, and a declining and ageing population – many of whom have not returned following evacuation.

5. Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant

This is the site of the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant. Have a look from satellite view first of all, to see the number of storage tanks all around the site. These are the key issue of contention at the moment, as they contain water which has been used to keep the damaged reactors cool and contain low levels of radioactive material such as tritium. This water is continuing to accumulate on site, and plant operator TEPCO claims they will run out of space by 2022.

Have a look at other points round the site perimeter, and you can see the storage tanks accumulating:

The operator’s preferred option is to release the water from the tanks into the sea, on the basis that this will free up space and that the concentrations of radioactive material in the tanks are low enough that it will not be harmful to fish or humans. However, the fisheries cooperatives are strongly opposed to the plan, believing that it will reset all the work they have done since 2011 to restore trust and confidence in the quality of Fukushima fish.

To understand the science behind the releases of water from the Fukushima site, read this article by Ken Buesseler of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

Bloomberg news have a short piece too on this controversy:

6. Fukushima Dai’ni nuclear power plant

For comparison, and to get a sense of the size of land required to host the cleanup operation at Fukushima Dai’ichi, have a look at how the size of the land occupied by Dai’ichi compares to the Fukushima Dai’ni plant about 10km south. Dai’ni is of similar size to Dai’ichi, but did not suffer any meltdowns and was shut down safely. Despite escaping the earthquake and tsunami without serious damage, plant operator TEPCO decided in 2019 to decommission the plant.

7. The Cho-Ei Maru and Tomioka Fishing Port

As you can see from Street View, the Tomioka Fishing Port was very badly damaged by the tsunami, and was also one of the last fishing ports to resume operations given its proximity to Fukushima Dai’ichi. Whilst some fishers returned to participating in trial fishing operations, other captains diversified into different lines of work. This was the case for the captain of the Cho-Ei Maru, a fishing boat registered to Tomioka. The Cho-Ei Maru was a pleasure fishing boat which operated before the disaster, and despite great personal tragedy the Captain returned to resume operations post-disaster. As well as operating pleasure fishing, the Cho-Ei Maru also supports a local NGO called Umi Labo to undertake citizen-led monitoring of radiation in fish caught in Fukushima waters.

8. Naraha

A little further south is Naraha Township. Naraha was released from its evacuation order in 2015, and has developed a small and lively community although many challenges remain. One of the areas in which Naraha has developed a very lively community and culture post-disaster is around food. Although Naraha has high cliffs at the coast and hence no fishing port, the Kido River is famous for salmon fishing. Following the nuclear accident, river fisheries present a very different set of circumstances to sea fisheries, given the potential for radioactive contamination from the mountains and forests upstream to wash into the river. However, salmon fishing in many rivers – including the Kido River – is now possible again.

As well as being an economically beneficial activity, fishing (and cooking and eating the catch!) is a very important activity on coastal Fukushima for maintaining good social relations and passing down knowledge and traditions of the local environment across generations. In this short film produced by the local Naraha Channel, you can see salmon fishing restarting in the Kido. If you want to watch a bit longer, you will see local legend Toki-san preparing and cooking fish. A recipe to try for the weekend?

9. Ookawa fish shop

One of the big challenges with trial fishing operations in Fukushima has been that even when consumers do want to buy fish landed at Fukushima ports, they couldn’t always easily find places that stocked the produce. The Ookawa fish shop has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Fukushima fish landed in the trial operations, and always has a lot of Fukushima fish on sale.

Recently, in the southern part of Fukushima, Iwaki City Government and the local fisheries cooperatives have developed the Joban-Mono brand for local seafood (Joban is the old name for the southern Fukushima coastal area, and Mono means ‘things’ or ‘produce’). Shops selling locally-landed fish have blue and white flags and banners, to help consumers know where to look. Although it’s in Japanese, the website is worth having a look at to see the brand the local government and cooperatives have developed:

http://joban-mono.jp/

10. Citizen science: Umi Labo and Tabe Labo

Another big challenge for consumers and fisheries post-disaster has been trust. Who can one trust for reliable information on the safety of Fukushima fish? To assess the safety of fish caught in Fukushima waters – but primarily to promote cooking and eating Fukushima produce – the local NGO Umi Labo (meaning: Sea Lab) regularly catches fish from the sea off the coast of the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant. With support from the Aquamarine Fukushima aquarium, they then independently check the content of the fish they catch. Anyone can join their cruises, which use the Cho-Ei Maru vessel (see Destination 7 above), and their monitoring data goes online for verification:

http://www.umilabo.jp/

However, as above, the primary function of Umi Labo is to promote the quality and deliciousness of Fukushima fish. To this end, until recently the aquarium ran Tabe Labo events (‘tabe’ here is a play on words, as it means ‘eat’ but uses the Chinese characters for ‘to check’). As the name suggests, at these events, the public can watch fish which have been caught on Umi Labo cruises be screened for radiation in real-time and – most importantly of all – try out some fresh Fukushima seafood! Aquarium chief scientist Tomihara-san has the motivation of encouraging people to try to cook rare or unusual kind of fish that we can find in Fukushima waters.

11. Yoake Ichiba food street and Waka bar

As above, eating locally-caught fish is a highly culturally meaningful activity along the Fukushima coast. Accordingly, a safe and managed restart of fisheries based on good scientific evidence is important for society and culture as well as the local economy. The Yoake Ichiba (Evening-Opening Market) is a popular nightspot in Iwaki City. The Waka Bar is especially famous for promoting locally-grown and caught goods. Have a look at the video below from the 1:20 mark to the 2:00 mark (you don’t need to watch it all!) to see the proprietor show the vegetables she sources locally and the baked sea urchin she has prepared. Waka also does baked Pacific saury in season

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