SOMA, Fukushima Prefecture–With a series of leaks of radioactive water at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, fishermen such as Yoshinori Yamazaki are feeling frustrated after being forced to postpone trial operations scheduled to start in September.
Yamazaki, 45, who lives in Soma, about 40 kilometers north of the plant, said time is being wasted as he cannot go to sea with his father Matsuo, 71, and his 23-year-old eldest son.
Before the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in March 2011, the three generations of his family went fishing together.
Matsuo had been excited about his grandson joining in the family tradition.
“We (the family) were doing as well as anyone else,” Yamazaki said. “How many valuable years do we have to lose?”
The city’s Matsukawaura Port had boasted one of the largest fisheries hauls in the Tohoku region before the disaster. For many working at the port, fishing is a family business, with a number of teenagers and those in their 20s deciding to take up the trade each year.
Throughout the season, more than 100 species are caught in the waters off the port. In the morning, the fish market was crowded with the wives of fishermen helping sort the day’s catch.
But the port was devastated by the tsunami, which followed the earthquake on March 11, 2011, and killed 101 members of the Soma-Futaba fishing cooperative association.
In an effort to bounce back from the earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear plant accident, the association started test operations in June 2012 for “mizudako” (North Pacific giant octopus) and two other species.
Conducting monitoring inspections, the association repeatedly checked samples to confirm safety of the catches.
Association members originally planned to triple the fishing grounds and increase the catch to 16 varieties when the trial operation resumed in September.
Yamazaki was well prepared for fishing for whitebait, a new species that was scheduled to be added in September. The fish, which brings high prices, is a lucrative catch for fishermen.
Fish detectors were showing large schools of whitebait, which have increased in number during the past years of suspension of fishing operations.
Yamazaki bought new fishing equipment, costing about 2 million yen ($20,000), to replace the gear that had been washed away in the tsunami.
The announcement by Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, that highly radioactive water has been leaking at the Fukushima No. 1 plant came during such preparation.
Following the March 2011 earthquake, his son obtained a license as a heavy truck driver and a heavy machinery operator. Yamazaki has told him to wait “until things get better.”
“I cannot keep him from leaving home forever,” Yamazaki said. “This coast will be no more if young people are gone.”
His mother, then 65, who supported the family’s fishing operations, was killed in the tsunami while Matsuo piloted his boat to safety in waters off Soma immediately after the earthquake.
“Even three years after the disaster, I cannot operate the boat I had protected in exchange for my wife’s life,” Matsuo lamented. “It doesn’t seem right that I saved the boat.”
Nobuo Shishido, president of the Soma-based supermarket Super Shishido, has also been discouraged by lagging sales apparently due to media coverage about the contaminated water leaking into the ocean.
“Last summer, 10 times more octopus, caught during the trial fishing period, were sold than this year,” Shishido said. “Even if I want to sell, consumers do not respond.”
Of about 200 kilograms of octopus caught in Fukushima waters and stocked in early August, half have been left unsold.
According to the Soma-Futaba fishing cooperative association, octopus caught during the trial fishing period had been shipped to Tokyo and Nagoya. But wholesalers in Nagoya stopped accepting the octopus in late July, a week after TEPCO announced a leak of radioactive water.
Hiroyuki Sato, who heads the association, has also felt frustrated.
“Products we monitored and found to be safe have been given the cold shoulder (by our customers),” Sato, 57, said. “We have done many things until now, but we are right back where we started.”
Fukushima Prefecture has been monitoring radiation levels of fish since April 2011. The levels have shown recovery from the measurements taken immediately after the accident.
The prefecture measures weekly radiation levels of about 150 fish samples at about 40 locations in the waters off Fukushima Prefecture, except the area within a 5-km radius of the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant.
In recent months, radiation levels have been at less than the detection limit of around 16 becquerels per kilogram for most species, such as flatfish, marbled flounder and whitebait.
According to the prefecture’s marine products division, the fisheries haul in coastal waters totaled only 122 tons in 2012, when Soma-Futaba started the trial operation, compared with about 26,000 tons, worth about 9 billion yen, each year before the 2011 disaster.
This year saw improvement, with a total of 386 tons of fish caught during trial operations while the concentration of cesium did not exceed the safety limit at many locations off the prefecture.
Aside from the Soma-Futaba fisheries cooperative association, the Iwaki fisheries cooperative, based in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, south of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, planned to launch a test operation in September for the first time since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.