TOKYO (majirox news) – Places like Kesennuma and Ishimaki are just names to most people. It is known that they were fishing ports, and that they were devastated by the recent tsunami in Miyagi prefecture. It is estimated that about 10,000 people were killed in the disaster, which might be wishful thinking. One city in Miyagi prefecture reported on Sunday that out of a population of 17,000, only 7,000 people had been confirmed alive in various shelters.
Ten thousand were missing. Of course, many of them may have ended up in shelters in other areas, but the chances are that in just one city there may be 10,000 dead. Taking into account the dozen (or more) small fishing ports and villages along the cost of Miyagi prefecture and neighboring Iwate prefecture, and the death toll total may rise to thousands more.
What has been completely ignored is the number of material and human resources that have been lost or destroyed.
Off the coast of the Sanriku Kaigan in Northern Japan, great schools of bonito and mackerel make this one of the three great fishing grounds of the entire world. The Pacific Coast of the Tohoku, including Ibaraki Prefecture accounts for about 20% of all seafood caught in Japan, he told the Asahi Shimbun.
Officials from MAFF (the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) flew over the stricken fishing ports and fishing villages on March 12 to assess the scope of the damage. One of the officials on the flight said, “The destruction of every single fishing port we saw was terrible. They were buried under heaps of rubble and not a single one was in any shape for fishing to take place. The effect of the tsunami was beyond any possible imagining,” he told the Asahi Shimbun.
For example, Japan’s northern fishing fleet was picked up by the tsunami and scattered as far away as 10 kilometers from the ocean. Few, if any, of those ships will ever be refloated. Most have suffered too much damage, while others are too large and heavy to move back to the water, and yet others have lost all their crew members — with no hope of replacing them. In effect, Japan has lost its entire North Pacific fleet in the disaster.
One may well assume there are other fishing boats that could pick up the slack. However, fishing boats in Japan — like everywhere else in the world — are a highly evolved species, and each has its specific niche. Many of Japan’s fishing boats are day fishers, which means that they venture out for a day or two to pursue seine (a long net that hangs in the water) or long-line trawl or set crab pots. Some are diver-platform boats whose main job is to carry a diver to and from the fishing grounds.
These boats are constructed for short journeys out to sea – they are not made to ride out great North Pacific storms and seek fish for weeks. Many of the ships in Japan’s North Pacific fleet were day fishers. But many of them were also pelagic (deep sea) fishers that were made for fishing trips lasting many weeks with crews numbering 20 or 30 men, with large holds that could be completely filled before the ships were returned home.
Other than those lucky enough to escape the tsunami, these ships have all been destroyed. Rebuilding the fleet will take several years, and even then, new crews must be assembled to man these boats. Indeed, many of those killed in the tsunami were expert fishermen, who had learned their skills from their fathers, who-in-turn had acquired their skills from their fathers. There is no school that one can attend in order to learn how to be a fisherman – these skills are acquired through apprenticeship alone.
Unfortunately, the lack of skilled fishermen is not the only problem. When the tsunami swept away cities like Kesennuma, which was one of Japan’s largest fishing ports, countless numbers of fish brokers were also killed. These are the people who actually buy the fish at dockside auction before ensuring that they are transported to Tsukiji and other fish markets to be resold. Once again, this is not something one is taught at school. Usually, a would be broker requires a mentor, and he then builds his experience through trial and error at the market. The loss of these experienced brokers has dealt a crippling blow to seafood commerce throughout Japan.
In small cities like Kesennuma there were many specialized firms that made and repaired the gear for fishing boats, including nets, systems for refrigeration and navigation, trawling winches, hooks and any of the other thousands of pieces of paraphernalia necessary for commercial fishing. There were also established boat yards that built and maintained the ships, ships chandlers that supplied them with every conceivable article, and the fishermen’s wives that ran the household while their husbands were at sea, toiling to make a living.
Kesenunma, which was almost entirely swept away, was a leading port for landing bonita, tuna and shark for Chinese dried shark fin. The fish farms in the bay for oysters and seaweed were totally destroyed. Ishimaki was a leading port for sardines and Hatto in Aomori Prefecture for mackerel. The entire Sanriku Coast line in Northern Japan was a major producer of wakame seaweed.
All this is gone — but there is even worse to come.
With tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of bodies washed out to sea, there will be plenty for the to fish feed on. Many people will be reluctant to eat fish caught in these waters for quite some time. Given that the nuclear reactors in Fukushima prefecture are releasing radiation, and knowing that water retains radioactivity energy much more than air does, one can assume that any fish — particular shellfish — caught in the surrounding waters would be radioactive and therefore unfit for human consumption.
A disaster of unprecedented scale has struck the Japanese food supply chain. It remains to be seen whether the fishing fleet from other parts of Japan fill the void, or whether imports will be necessary. Certainly, it will take many years for Japan’s North Pacific fisheries activities to return to normal.