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Japan's $2.4 billion business in seafood exports takes a beating. Fishermen are hard hit.
KYUBUN, Japan — There is much to admire about the dispossessed fishermen of Tohoku, the region of northeast Japan destroyed by the March 11th tsunami. They will repair their boats, rebuild ports and, in some cases, overcome their fear of returning to the sea.
But there is one consequence of the disaster over which they are powerless: coastal waters contaminated by the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, and consumers at home and abroad whose love of sushi has succumbed to fear of radioactivity.
The impact of safety concerns is being felt across Asia, as nervous diners avoid Japanese restaurants, even though no seafood imports have tested positive for dangerous levels of radiation. One restaurant in Taiwan went as far as providing customers with personal Geiger counters to accompany their sushi orders.
China, the European Union and dozens of other countries have imposed restrictions on Japanese fisheries products, dealing a blow to the country's $2.4 billion business in seafood exports, which account for more than 10 percent of the value of the entire industry.
Japanese fish traders with business interests in Asia say trade has recovered slightly since the early days of the nuclear crisis, but add that it is still significantly below pre-tsunami levels.
“The problem is the government is not giving us proper data about radiation levels in marine life. Even if they did, I'm not sure I would believe it.”~Kazuhisa Komatsu, seafood wholesaler
Masaaki Tao, a trader at Tsukiji market in Tokyo, says foreign buyers have been spooked by reports of elevated radiation readings in the sea near Fukushima Dai-ichi.
Sales to restaurants in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia have plummeted, he said. "Until someone in authority tells them that Japanese fish is safe, the situation can only get worse. We want to see the Fukushima situation solved soon, but it looks like it's going to take time."
Consumers have failed to be reassured by a ban on all fishing near the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and regular screening of radiation levels in seafood caught along Japan's Pacific coast.
And tsunami damage means very little seafood from Tohoku is reaching Tsukiji, the world's biggest fish market, although it once accounted for more than a quarter of the market's total supply.
"Orders from our overseas clients are down by two-thirds," said Kazuhisa Komatsu, an employee of Masamaru, a wholesaler. "They are scared of all Japanese fish because of the nuclear accident. Before the crisis we were supplying 20 restaurants in Asia. Now we are left with only three."
In Tokyo, sushi restaurants initially suffered from jishuku, a communal observance of self-restraint that ended when fishermen in the disaster zone told Tokyoites the culture of sacrifice was hampering their efforts to recover.
Yet buyers for some of Tokyo's best sushi restaurants are struggling to reconcile the desire to support the region with the need to reassure customers.
To retain the custom of high-end restaurants and luxury hotels in Japan that refuse to buy produce from Tohoku, Masamaru is scrambling to secure alternative stocks from southwestern Japan, hundreds of miles from the nuclear plant.
"The problem is the government is not giving us proper data about radiation levels in marine life," said Komatsu. "Even if they did, I'm not sure I would believe it. It's very troublesome to our foreign clients."
But the effects of the tsunami and the nuclear crisis are most keenly felt in fishing communities along the Tohoku coat.
For Toshikazu Takahashi, an oyster fisherman in Kyubun, a village along the Oshika peninsula, talk of contaminated seafood is premature. "We all worry about the negative impact of rumors, of course, but for now, that's irrelevant," said 54-year-old Takahashi, who lives in a tent near the coast with his wife and dog. "At the moment we can't even get out into the sea to fish."
In the United States, public health officials say they have yet to find dangerous levels of radioactivity in Japanese seafood imports.
Yet the risks posed to marine life by huge quantities of contaminated water from Fukushima Dai-ichi were underlined when radioactive iodine was detected in a type of small fish known as konago caught off the coast of Ibaraki, south of the nuclear plant.
Earlier this week, Japan's fisheries agency said trace quantities of radioactive caesium had been found in two minke whales caught off the coast of Hokkaido in Japan's far north.
The whales showed readings well below the temporary upper limit for seafood of 500 bequerels per kilo. But the discovery adds to concerns that contamination has already reached the top of the marine food chain.
Monitoring by Greenpeace in waters north and south of Fukushima Dai-ichi found "worrying" levels of radioactivity in seaweed — a staple of the Japanese diet. The organization said most of the fish and shellfish it sampled showed levels of radioactivity above legal limits, although it added that caesium readings were lower than expected.
Experts have downplayed the risk from iodine-131, which has a half-life of only eight days; a much greater risk is posed by caesium-137, which has a half-life of several decades.
"In contract to radioactive iodine, radioactive caesium can linger in the environment for many years and could continue to present a longer term problem for food, and food production, and a threat to human health," the World Health Organization said.
The WHO advises consumers to "avoid consumption and harvesting of aquatic animals and plant — including fish, shellfish and algae in areas considered to be seriously contaminated" a description that applies to Fukushima, if not other waters in the region.
The Nikkei business newspaper said radiation worries meant fishermen face an even bigger challenge than farmers whose livelihoods have been ruined by the nuclear accident.
"The cesium in small fish could be passed through the food chain into widely eaten species of fish such as mackerel, saury and bonito," it said. "Fish swim through wide swathes of the ocean, so dealing with the health hazards posed by radioactivity in fish represents a much tougher public health challenge than the problem of contaminated vegetables."
Yu Ando is one of several fishermen in Kyubun who have begun repairing frames for oyster cultivation — once the village's economic lifeline — although many accept it will be impossible to cultivate oysters in time for this winter.
The 27-year-old, who lives with his wife and three children on the second floor of their tsunami-damaged home, accepted that consumers had been put off by contamination fears.
"But we can't be distracted by radiation," he said. "Residents here are all pulling together to try and get things up and running again. We have to start somewhere."