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Recovery and Change: Sanriku Fisheries Shifting Focus Seven Years After 3/11

Kikuchi Masanori [Profile]


Fisheries along the southern Sanriku coast in Japan’s Tōhoku region were devastated by tsunami in 2011. Seven years since the disaster, many have rebuilt port and other basic facilities and have used recovery efforts to improve and streamline operations. Catches have largely rebounded, but communities continue to struggle to attract young people to local fishing industries. Journalist Kikuchi Masanori returns to the towns of Ishinomaki, Minamisanriku, and Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture for an update on the progress of the area’s fisheries.

A Long-Awaited Reopening

Traveling in mid-February up the Sanriku coast in Miyagi Prefecture, I pass by scores of heavy machines as I navigate the winding highway that skirts this intricate stretch of shoreline. The diggers and other construction equipment are part of a government project to build a mammoth seawall that will shield coastal communities from tsunamis like the one that devastated the region in March 2011. My first stop takes me to Minamisanriku, a town I have not visited in a year, to check on local disaster recovery efforts.

At the newly completed factory and headquarters of the seafood company Marusen in Minamisanriku Miura Hiroaki, the third-generation head of the 80-year-old company, reflects on his struggles over the last seven years. “It has been a long, tough road,” he says, a smile spreading across his features, “but we’re finally over the hump.”

The plant sits on a raised platform of soil built in an area that before the tsunami was the town center. Finished in September 2017, the factory is still running at limited capacity until a grand opening, an event that will include the launching of a new shop onsite, scheduled for mid-March. Miura says he is relieved to have the fishing industry finally back on its feet. “Our business depends entirely on the region’s marine resources,” he explains. “Now we finally have a steady flow of the basic ingredients we need.”

On the production floor female employees clad in pink hooded coveralls dip fillets of locally sourced salmon in batter. The fish will eventually be fried and served as part of school lunches at local schools. “We provided dishes to schools before the earthquake,” states Miura. “Now that the factory is finished we can start doing it again.”

Marusen’s newly built seafood processing plant in Minamisanriku.

Once fully operational, the factory will produce a wide variety of seafood products.

Miura lost nine properties including his house, shops, and a factory when the tsunami swept through Minamisanriku, devastating the town center. The massive wave also claimed the life of his grandmother, whom he lived with. In December 2011, while still living in temporary housing, he set out to rebuild Marusen, borrowing a workspace and using an old car he obtained to deliver seafood products to residents who still had to rely on donated food. In early 2017 he moved out of his provisional accommodations after work on his new home was finished. The completion of Marusen’s new ¥360 million production facility now gives him a permanent place to run his business as well.

Although Marusen’s situation has improved greatly, Miura knows he must keep thing in perspective. Standing outside the company’s gray-walled plant, he shares his thoughts on the future. “I have a new home and have rebuilt my company, but I can’t ignore the disaster’s impact on the town’s population and business environment. I have to put my shoulder to the wheel and turn local marine resources into great products.”

Catches Recover in Iwate and Miyagi

The convergence off the Sanriku coast of the warm Kuroshio Current and cold Oyashio Current produce one of the richest fishing grounds in the world. However, the tsunami decimated ports, fishing fleets, and aquaculture facilities that supported the fishing and seafood processing industries, long the backbones of the region’s economy. Fisheries in Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures are recovering as reconstruction of key infrastructure has neared completion. In Fukushima Prefecture, though, the fishing industry is still struggling under restrictions stemming from radiation concerns.

In Minamisanriku, most of the town’s port and aquaculture facilities were restored by 2014. The local fishing industry, which lost 90% of its fleet, has with the assistance of fishing cooperatives around the country and through other means gradually replaced vessels, enabling more fishermen to return to the water. Catches have gradually improved after falling to 3,042 tons in 2011 in the wake of the disaster. Boats netted a whopping 8,556 tons of fish in 2013, a year of extraordinary catches. Despite falling since then, catches have shown growth in more recent years, with 2017 marking what looks like a sustainable return to predisaster levels with fishermen hauling in 5,928 tons valued at over ¥2.21 billion, an increase of 14% and 23%, respectively, from the previous year.

With fish catches rebounding and construction complete, the head of the town’s agriculture, forestry, and fisheries department says the industry must now change its focus to securing and educating the next generation of fishermen.

  • [2018.03.09]

Born in Hokkaidō in 1965. Worked as a reporter at the daily Hokkaidō Shimbun before going freelance. Writes interview-based reportage and social features for such magazines as Aera, Chūō Kōron, Shinchō 45, and President.

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