FISHING AND AGRICULTURE AFTER THE TSUNAMI

FISHING AND AQUACULTURE AFTER THE MARCH 2011 TSUNAMI IN JAPAN

The huge tsunami following the March 2011 earthquake damaged more than 300 fishing ports in seven prefectures, including Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima. The Fisheries Agency says the damage totaled about $11 billion. Aquafarming industries in the region were also severely damaged, particularly in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, where production of oysters and wakame seaweed is widespread.

The March 11 tsunami made unusable about 90 percent of the 29,000 fishing boats in disaster-hit Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. The total catch, excluding farmed fish, in the three prefectures before the tsunami was 446,300 tons, accounting for 10 percent of Japan’s catch.

In May 2011, Kyodo reported: “The Japanese aquaculture industry suffered more than ¥100 billion in damage, or a quarter of its annual output, from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. In tsunami-ravaged Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, the damage was particularly severe for oyster and "wakame" (brown seaweed) farming, the survey by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry said. The tsunami also dealt a heavy blow to central Ibaraki, Chiba and Fukushima prefectures, and even the southwestern prefectures of Mie, Kochi, Oita. [Source: Kyodo, May 19, 2011]

The tsunami devastated sea squirt fisheries and salmon farms in Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures, which account for 95 percent of their respective markets in Japan. Hoya (sea squirt) farm were obliterated right before the harvesting season. “Fishermen in various coastal regions also took damage as various species, including white salmon, red sea bream and yellowtail, either died or were lost during the tsunami-quake disaster, the officials said. Miyagi was in the worst shape, with damages totaling ¥51.8 billion, followed by Iwate with ¥24.2 billion and Hokkaido with ¥15.8 billion. Hokkaido's industry incurred massive financial damage to such products as scallops, sea urchin and kelp. In Mie Prefecture, farms that cultivate pearl, red sea bream and other marine products suffered a combined ¥3.7 billion in damage, while farms in Kochi Prefecture that were raising yellowtail and other marine products lost ¥200 million.” [Ibid]

An official close to a fishermen's association said some will have to start again from scratch. He told Kyodo: "We also have to meet the challenge of securing funds for a range of expenses, including feed," bringing attention to the fact that fish, such as red sea bream, take two to three years before they can be shipped to market. A fisheries cooperative federation in Ibaraki Prefecture on Wednesday demanded that ¥425 million in damages be paid by Tokyo Electric Power Co. to compensate for losses caused by radiation from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. [Ibid]

Fishing Industry in the Tsunami-Stricken Region before the Disaster

Fishing ports and aquafarming facilities on the nation's Pacific coast, especially those in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, were severely damaged by the tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake. The waters off the Sanriku region, where the Oyashio current and the Kuroshio current meet, were known one of the world's best fishing areas, where many varieties could be caught. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 7, 2011]

The region's shorelines were jagged and undulating, which provided natural, sheltered locations for ports. Kesennuma and Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture have long been bases for offshore and deep-sea fishing of bonito, tuna and other fish. Fishing boats from all over the nation gathered in ports around these cities, near the many wholesale markets and seafood-processing facilities that were in the area. Sheltered bays were well-suited for fish and seaweed farming. Oysters and other shellfish, and seaweed such as wakame and kelp were produced in large quantities in the region. Fishery production in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures was 135 billion yen in 2009, which accounted for about 10 percent of the country's total. The three prefectures' total catch in 2009 amounted to 654,000 tons, accounting for about 12 percent of the national haul. In monetary terms, the haul was valued at 135 billion yen, accounting for about 10 percent of the nation's total.

About 40 percent of southern bluefin tuna and about 30 percent of saury were unloaded at ports in the three prefectures. Oysters farmed in the three prefectures accounted for about 30 percent of the nation's total, and sea urchin about 20 percent. About 80 percent of farmed wakame in the nation came from Iwate and Miyagi prefectures. Wakame from these areas was valued higher than that from other prefectures. Shark fins from Kesennuma and dried wild abalone from Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, fetched high prices in China and other countries.

The Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami damaged almost all of the 263 fishing ports in the three prefectures and destroyed nearly 500 marine product processing plants in the region. The recovery of the fishing industry is critical for the revitalization of the devastated regional economy.[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 30, 2011]

"Processing plants and refrigeration facilities were destroyed, and there's no way to transport marine products to consumers," said Prof. Masayuki Komatsu of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. "It's necessary to rebuild facilities and a production system encompassing every aspect of the business, from harvesting marine products to sales."

The number of fishing boats washed out to sea or grounded inland is reported at 18,610, but this figure represents only those reported to the agency. The three prefectures still have not been able to tally the exact numbers, and it is estimated that the number of fishing boats damaged by the tsunami will likely increase. Some ports suffered major land loss in the disaster. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 7, 2011]

Because of debris washed into the ocean, there are many areas where fishing activities cannot resume. Broken wood from aquafarming floats and other debris is floating in the water around fishing ports, and cars, roofs and boats have sunk to the seafloor. Debris has also washed into offshore fishing grounds. The total volume "is so massive, we can't determine how much there is," a representative of the Iwate prefectural government's Fishing Ports and Regions Division said.

Seafood-processing facilities were also devastated by the tsunami. In Miyagi Prefecture, more than 70 percent of the more than 400 such facilities were destroyed or seriously damaged. Most of the 35 fish markets in the three prefectures, as well as the freezer and refrigeration facilities necessary for keeping the fish fresh were also damaged.

The agency estimated that, as of May 30, the damage to the national fishing industry from the March 11 tsunami was 902.3 billion yen. In the three prefectures, 21,444 people worked in the fisheries industry in 2008. About 40 percent of the people engaged in fishery work in this country are aged 60 or older. If reconstruction work is delayed, it will severely harm employment in the region.

Fishermen Affected by the Earthquake and Tsunami

Fishermen were arguably the people devastated most by the earthquake and tsunami. Many lost their homes---as they tended to be near the sea in fishing towns annihilate by the tsunami---and their fishing boats too. Those that managed to get back work and go back out to sea had to deal with worries about radiation leaks into the sea from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The seas off the area struck by the tsunami were Japan’s largest fishing ground and the tsunami struck just as the main fishing season was beginning.

Fishermen were outraged when 11,500 tons of low-level radioactive water was released into the sea in early April and high levels of radioactivity were detected in sea water and some radioactivity was found in caught fish. The head of TEPCO apologized to fishermen as they presented him a formal complaint. After the release the government set consumption limits for radioactive iodine (2,000 becquerels per kilogram).

Even when fish was caught that wasn’t contaminated with radioactivity fishermen or the levels of radioactivity found in fish were within ranges deemed safe by the government they had to deal with rumors that the fish was dangerous to eat or worries by shoppers that it might be dangerous. Many fishermen gave up on fishing because they prices they were paid at markets was not enough to cover their fuel and labor costs and other expenses.

The costs of compensating fishermen is going to be very high. About 20,000 fishing boats, mainly in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, were destroyed or badly damaged and likely will need to be covered by the public insurance system. It has been estimated that the government fishing vessel insurance system will be short hundreds of millions of dollars and the national government will have to pay the rest.

Problems Faced by Fishermen After the 2011 Tsunami

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Most of the estimated 25 billion yen worth of damage done to scallop and oyster farms off the Sanriku Coast by the March 11 tsunami will not be covered by a fisheries mutual aid insurance program, because cultivation of the shellfish was at too early a stage. It takes about three years to cultivate scallops and oysters to the point at which they are ready to be harvested and shipped to market.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 22, 2011]

The mutual aid insurance program in question is designed specifically for shellfish farmers, and covers only shellfish that are nearly ready for harvesting and shipment. No payments are provided for shellfish more than one year away from their harvest season. Most of the shellfish destroyed by the tsunami were too young to qualify for coverage, leaving many local fishermen at a loss.

Other fishermen had shellfish that would have been ready to be harvested by next March, but they had not yet taken out insurance contracts for that period. They were planning to sign such contracts in April or later. The Fisheries Agency is looking into the possibility of revising the terms of the program. "There's a gap between what the mutual aid program covers, and the reality of shellfish cultivation," an agency official said.

Fishermen trying to resume fishing trade after the March 11 tsunami have been plagued by the massive amount of debris the disaster left in the sea, but cleanup efforts have been hampered by a lack of reliable information on both the amount and location of debris. Ports and fishing grounds are clogged with driftwood and waste from the tsunami. There also are many wrecked houses and vehicles in the water. In some places, fishing boats spend as much time collecting debris in their fishing grounds as they do fishing.

Oyster, Seaweed and Sea Squirt Industries

Many of the floats for farming oysters and ropes used for farming wakame seaweed were also washed away in the tsunami. Farms of hoya sea squirt--those in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures account for more than 90 percent of nationwide shipments--and those of coho salmon--known by the brand name Date-no-gin--were destroyed. It is not clear when hoya farming can resume as it takes three to four years for them to mature and be harvested. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 7, 2011]

In Tokyo's Tsukiji wholesale market, prices of hoya have been 50 percent higher than usual. Prices of oysters and sea urchin have been 10 to 20 percent higher.

Damage from the tsunami affected not only the Tohoku region but also scallop farming in Hokkaido and mozuku seaweed farming in Okinawa Prefecture.

Problems Suffered by Iwate Wakame Farmers

A shortage of farming equipment in Iwate Prefecture, hit hard by the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, has fisheries cooperatives scrambling for rope in time to cultivate wakame seaweed for next spring's harvest. [Source: Hirosuke Nishiumi, September 22, 2011]

Iwate Prefecture produces the most wakame in Japan. Fisherman are hurriedly preparing ropes as operations to install them are set to begin at the end of October. The wakame cultured this year will be harvested next spring. In the prefecture, 19 fishery cooperatives started this season's cultivation in early August. Although only half of the normal amount of wakame is being cultivated this year, the prefectural government is providing financial support, as the resource provides income relatively quickly.

Producers of the ropes are in short supply after a large amount of fishing equipment was washed away by the tsunami. As it takes one month to prepare new ropes for cultivating the seaweed, fishermen need to acquire them by the end of September. If the operations are delayed, the growth of the wakame will be affected. The Kamaishi Port fishery cooperative plans to use rope normally used for cultivating scallops and oysters as a substitute.

Abalone Industry After the Disaster

Young abalone numbers growing wild in waters off Miyagi Prefecture have fallen more than 90 percent since February, apparently because the edible mollusks were swept away by the tsunami, according to the National Research Institute of Fisheries, based in Yokohama. The research center said the abalone catch is likely to suffer for several years as a result. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 23, 2011]

The survey also found the population of adult abalone had fallen 30 percent to 50 percent since February. Numbers of other edible sea creatures have also been affected--in Ishinomaki, the population of northern sea urchin is down by more than 90 percent compared to February, the study found. Seabed water in both areas was muddy, according to the researchers. In Kesennuma, the seabed was covered with debris such as fishery equipment, wood and iron frames, they said.

Most abalone culture farms along the Sanriku coast were seriously affected by the tsunami, and it remains unclear when they will be able to resume operations.

According to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, in fiscal 2009 Miyagi Prefecture had the second-biggest abalone catch in the country, and the third-biggest sea urchin catch.

Riichi Miura, 62, a fisherman in Karakuwacho in Kesennuma, went diving for abalone in early August, having replaced two fishing boats that were washed away by the tsunami. Miura found almost no abalone shellfish. "We'll have to cut down our abalone catch for the next few years while we wait for the young shellfish to recover," Miura said.

Recovery of Fishing Industry After the 2011 Tsunami

As part of an effort to help fisheries industries recover as quickly as possible, Japan’s science ministry is planning large research projects to develop technologies to cultivate marine products in upland sites and determine the impact on the marine ecosystem in seas affected by the tsunami in the Tohoku region. The effort includes: 1) deploying a new 1,600-ton research ship built with the latest technology to detect fish and measure seabed topography to determine how the region's marine environment was changed by the tsunami and access the impact of the large amount of debris deposited by the tsunami; 2) developing technologies to cultivate ground oysters, scallops and other marine products, which are specialties of the Sanriku region; and 3) accelerating research and development to create new industries by utilizing regional marine resources, such as production of cosmetics and biofuel made from seaweed. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, September 19, 2011]

Rebuilding the fishing industry is considered vital to getting Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures back on their feet, Among the ideas being considered is allowing fishermen to jointly operate boats and make ceratin areas “state-owned” so it easier for the government to fund them and allow governments to pay fishermen as “employees.” Similar ideas have been proposed for those involved in the farming of fish and sea products.

Many fishing boats ended up being salvaged and put back to use. A 47-ton whaling vessel, Taisho Maru No. 28 which was swept more than 20 kilometers from the shipyard where it was docked for maintenance was put back in the sea two months later with the help of two cranes. One fisherman who thought for sure he had lost his boat, the 14-ton Miki maru No. 5, forever when it was washed out to seas retrieved 750 kilometers from its home port of Ishinomaki on the Inubosaki cape in Chiba Prefecture.

On April 14, fishing resumed at Shiogama Port in Miyagi Prefecture. It is one of the largest ports in the Tokoku region. The first fishing ship to make port was the Hoyo Maru No, 18, a tuna trawler loaded with about 17 tons of fish, mostly tuna. There were no reports of radiation. Prices for big-eye tuna were ¥5,800 a kilogram nearly double the usual price of ¥3,000 a kilogram.

Fishery operators in Ishinomaki established a fishery reconstruction organization at the end of March and vowed to restart operations as soon as possible. However, securing necessary funds has proven to be very difficult. "There's been no progress at all," Suda said, referring to processing factories and ice plants near the coast that were destroyed by the tsunami. Masayoshi Suda, 57, worked in a coastal fishery in Ishinomaki. He was forced to scrap his fishing boat, the Ryotoku Maru, which was dumped inland by the tsunami. "I used the boat for 25 years and I was very attached to it," he said. [Source: Hideo Kamata and Yoichiro Kagawa, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 17, 2011]

In Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, the Omoe fishermen's co-op is trying to repair fishing boats and remove debris from fishing ports, and has managed to make enough progress to enable the annual harvest of wakame seaweed to go ahead. However, it has received no help from the government for its mainstay business, cultivating wakame and kombu seaweed, and has no idea when it will be able to restart operations. "If we don't get prompt support from the government, we won't be able to harvest [the seaweed] next year. If there's no work, young people will leave," the co-op's head, Ryuichi Ito, said.

Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, known as the nation's largest bonito fishing base, aims to restart operations in June. But a prefectural official said, "The catch right after we restart is expected to be about 50 tons to 100 tons a day, which is less than one-eighth of the catch in an average year."

"Manufacturers can go ahead with their recovery if they have machines and equipment. But for the fishery industry, port facilities were destroyed and many fishing boats were swept away. It might take five to 10 years for the industry to get back to where it was before the disaster," Takeshi Minami, Norinchukin Research Institute Co. chief researcher, told the Yomiuri Shimbun.

Private Funding for Fishing Businesses

Satoshi Ariizumi wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Private small-lot funds have become popular in helping fishery businesses hit hard by the March 11 disaster. Private funds are viewed as more effective in supporting fishery businesses in the disaster-hit areas as the invested money can be traced easily, unlike money donated through major relief organizations. [Source: Satoshi Ariizumi, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 11, 2011]

“In the Urato Islands in Matsushima Bay in Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture, known for oyster and seaweed farming, most seafood cultivating and processing facilities were devastated by the massive earthquake and tsunami. In April, fish farmers and others in the industry launched a small-lot ownership system in which funds are raised by collecting sums of 10,000 yen to assist about 40 local fishermen in buying materials and repairing their facilities, among other things. When they resume fish farming, they will send marine products, such as oysters, worth 2,500 yen to 3,000 yen for each investment as "dividends." [Ibid]

“Since this method of reconstructing fishery businesses was publicized on the Internet, about 145 million yen has been raised in about two months. Yoshimasa Koizumi, a 36-year-old fisherman who launched the fund, was pleased with the greater-than-expected response. "I want to live up to the [investors'] expectations in reconstructing [the business]," he said. In May 2011, marine product processing companies and other entities in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, established a similar fund called Sanriku Kaisan Saisei Projekuto (Project to revitalize the marine product industry from Sanriku). The annual membership fee is 10,000 yen for individuals and 30,000 yen for companies. The money is intended to finance rebuilding work for fishermen and small and midsize companies. The fund has already attracted about 500 members nationwide. In return, the members can buy products from companies they support at a discount of 20 percent to 30 percent.

In April, the Miyagi prefectural government proposed creating a special zone in which companies would be granted fish cultivation rights that have been preferentially granted to fishery cooperatives. The move is aimed at luring investment from the private sector by having companies hire fishermen. But the Miyagi fisheries cooperative opposed this idea. "Companies will leave the business if it's not profitable. We're against [the idea] of having these rights taken from us," one cooperative official said. Local businesses prefer private small-lot funds because they are able to use their initiative in operating their businesses like before. Investors, meanwhile, face the risk of failing to obtain sufficient dividends, so they should first check out the fund they plan to invest in.”

Rebuilding the Fishing Industry in the Tsunami-Stricken Region

The Fisheries Agency estimates that about 600 billion yen is necessary to reconstruct or repair the ports.

Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai proposed the creation of a "special fisheries industry zone." His aim was to make it easier for a wide range of private companies to acquire fishing rights, which have so far been allocated preferentially to fishermen's cooperative associations, and thereby open fish farming and other operations to entities besides the co-ops. "A new [fisheries] system should be introduced to make the industry attractive to young people and a wide spectrum of private-sector investors," Murai said.

Some council members were in favor of Murai's proposal, but it has drawn strong opposition from the Federation of Miyagi Prefecture Fishermen's Cooperative Associations. Federation officials said private companies, even if allowed to enter the fisheries business, would withdraw if they failed to make a profit quickly. Officials also argued that there are no waters off Miyagi Prefecture that could be offered to companies other than local fisheries interests. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 7, 2011]

In Iwate Prefecture, which has many small fishing ports due to the prefecture's convoluted coastline, plans are being studied to have fishery cooperatives make bulk purchases of shipping vessels and aquafarming facilities, and let fishermen share them. Fishery cooperatives in such Iwate municipalities as Miyako and Yamadamachi have already adopted a system of sharing fishing vessels. The prefectural federation of fishing co-ops plans to soon purchase 200 vessels to enable Iwate fishermen to resume operations by the end of the year. There also moves to integrate fishing ports.

In Miyagi Prefecture, where 140 of 142 fishing ports were ravaged by the tsunami, a project is under way to eventually reduce the number of fishing ports to one-third of the previous level. The prefectural government plans to consolidate five major fishing ports in the prefecture, including Kesennuma, Ishinomaki and Shiogama, into "regional fishery hubs" complete with marine product-processing facilities and freezing and refrigeration systems. The Fisheries Agency also has drawn up a fisheries reconstruction plan to boost information networking between key regional fishing ports and small ports nearby, to promote the consolidation of fisheries markets and processing facilities in the region.

Major trading companies are is entering the fishing industry as governments in disaster-hit areas have high hopes that private funds can help rebuild the industry devastated by the March 11 disaster. Mitsui plans to invest in fisheries hit by the disaster and recoup its initial investment after they have recovered. The company expects to provide extensive support to fishermen, marine product processing companies and ice makers.The company will not acquire fishing rights, in the hope of making it easier for the company to gain cooperation from fishermen and build strong relationships with them.Sojitz Corp. a general trading company, acquired fishing rights through a subsidiary in Nagasaki Prefecture and is operating a tuna farm.

A huge freighter washed ashore in Iwate Prefecture by the March 11th tsunami was finally returned to sea seven months after the disaster. The bow of the 2,300-ton ship had been sitting on a road near Kamaishi Port after being thrust through a bank of the port. In October a crane vessel capable of lifting a 4,000-ton ship docked side by side with the freighter. The freighter was lifted using 32 wires and slowly winched back to sea over the course of about one hour.Emergency repairs will be conducted if divers find damage to the bottom of the hull. The ship will then be moved to a factory in Hiroshima Prefecture, western Japan. Kamaishi City Vice Mayor Tadamitsu Wakasaki said he hopes that the removal of the freighter will help accelerate the city's reconstruction. The ship was blocking traffic and slowing reconstruction. [Source: japan-afterthebigearthquake.blogspot.com NHK, October 20, 2011]

Impact of the Earthquake and Tsunami on Agriculture

Japan's agriculture sector suffered $30 billion in losses from the March earthquake and deadly tsunami, which deluged crops, and radiation releases from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “In the disaster, 21,480 hectares of farmland were inundated by tsunami in six prefectures facing the Pacific Ocean, ranging from Aomori to Chiba prefectures. Miyagi Prefecture, where rice paddies and vegetable fields are spread along the coastline, accounts for 67 percent of the damaged farmland. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 8, 2013 ~~]

Miyagi Prefecture suffered damage to 15,000 hectares of farmland in five cities flooded by seawater---more than 50 percent of the total farmland in those cities. Places where tsunami waters receded quickly suffering relatively minor damage to the soil. Places were farmland remained flooded for some time and salt was deposited in the soil into the suffered significant soil damage that would require at least a year to restore.

Things may be much worse for those living near the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Fukushima’s 70,000 commercial farmers produce more than $2.4 billion worth of spinach, tomatoes, milk and other popular foods a year. Many of them felt abandoned by the government which they felt worried first about Tokyo and only concerned themselves to areas struggling the full brunt of the earthquake-tsunami disaster as an afterthought.

Reporting from Towa in Fukushima Prefecture Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Sato, 59, is a 17th-generation family farmer, a proprietor of 14 acres of greenhouses and fields where he grows rice, tomatoes, spinach and other vegetables. Or did grow...Already, Mr. Sato stands to lose a fifth of his income because of the ban. If the government cannot contain the Daiichi disaster, he could lose a farm that his family has tended since the 1600s.”[Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, March 29, 2011]

“Even if it’s not safe, I need my fields for my work. I have no other place to go. I don’t even want to think about escaping from my land,” he told the New York Times. “I can’t keep going for too long,” said Kenzo Sasaki, 70, who milks 18 cows on a farm outside the city of Fukushima. Mr. Sasaki estimates that he is losing nearly $31,000---not including the cost of feeding his herd---for every month that the sales ban continues. Across town, Shoichi Abe, 62, milks about 30 cows in his own dingy barn. He has been unable to sell his 1,100 pounds of daily production since the March 11 earthquake damaged the milk-processing plant at the local farm co-op. Now the government has extended that prohibition indefinitely. Mr. Abe said, “It’s costing us 70,000 yen a day---about $860. [Ibid]

“We have no income,” he said, “and the truth is that we don’t want to continue this. All the agriculture is gone. The consumers don’t want to buy products from Fukushima Prefecture, so we can’t sell them. It’s the rumor problem.” To a person, the farmers say their products are safe to eat and drink. None of the growers interviewed had been visited by anyone seeking to monitor radiation on their land. The government’s radiation readings---to the extent that they have been publicized---have been ambiguous at best. [Ibid]

In early April, the Japanese government restricted the planting of rice in soil with more than 5,000 becquerels per kilogram of cesium. Levels that high had been found in farms near the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Rice paddies in Iitatemura have given off readings as high as 15,031 becquerels per kilogram. Parts of Iitatemura are between 20 and 30 kilometers from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Rice production in Fukushima Prefecture is the forth highest in Japan at 450,000 tons annually. The 5,000 becquerel number was reached based on research that shows rice absorbs one tenth of radioactive cesium in the soil. Since 500 becquerels per kilogram is the limit for consumed rice under the Japanese Food Sanitation Law then 5,000 becquerels per kilogram made sense for the soil limit because 500 is one tenth of 5,000.

Farmers and the 2011 Tsunami

According to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, fishery and agricultural industries had suffered about ¥1.4 trillion ($160 billion) worth of damage. There are no official estimates yet of how much farmland was affected. A rough calculation based on last year’s harvest in tsunami-hit towns indicates that at most 8 percent of Japan’s 1.6 million hectares of rice farms has been hit, affecting about 4 percent of the total production. [Source: AP, March 27, 2011]

Reporting from Sendai an AP journalist wrote, “The rice paddies on the outskirts of this tsunami-hit city are ankle-deep in a black, salty sludge. Crumpled cars and uprooted trees lie scattered across them. His house destroyed, rice farmer Shinichi Shibasaki lives on a square of blue tarp on the top floor of a farming cooperative office with others like him. He has one set of soiled clothes. However, all he can think about is getting back to work.” “If we start washing the soil out now, we can start growing our rice seedlings at the end of April at a different location, and plant them here a month later,” the 59-year-old said. [Source: AP, March 27, 2011]

“In the small city of Natori, Akemi Miura can only laugh as she looks at the land around her home, which her family has worked for more than a century,” AP reported. “However, the 46-year-old said they will replant, though she thinks it will take a few years for the soil to recover. A fishing boat washed more than 1.5km inland smashed into her carnation greenhouse and caught fire. Debris and a thick, sticky mud covers the fields.” “I think we’re finished with carnations, but we’ll always grow rice,” she said. [Ibid]

“Yoichi Kasamatsu, 56, a vegetable farmer in Wakabayashi Ward, Sendai, told the Yomiuri Shimbun a hectare of his farmland about one kilometer inland had been submerged. He turned over the farm's topsoil with a tractor and let repeated exposure to rain wash away salt. Even so, he said the tomatoes he harvested in summer in 2011, the year of the disaster, were "too salty to eat." He also discarded daikon and carrots because they quickly turned black. The Miyagi Prefectural Institute of Agriculture and Horticulture, which is investigating changes in salinity and its effect on plant growth, said: "We resumed farming but we could not harvest crops at all." Salt levels in farmland gradually become lower if people continue cultivation and expose farmland to rain. However, crop yields of cucumbers and strawberries grown in plastic greenhouses have severely declined, according to the institute. ~~ [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 8, 2013 ~~]

High Salinity in Farmland

Hideo Kamata and Tomoko Hatakeyama wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Farmland flooded by seawater as a result of the March 11 tsunami will take years to recover from the excess salinity and become arable again, leaving farmers in a quandary about how to get their businesses up and running again. More than two months after the Great East Japan Earthquake, little progress has been made to restore affected regions' agricultural industries, which were also hurt by rumors about the safety of products following the series of accidents at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. [Source: Hideo Kamata and Tomoko Hatakeyama, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 23 2011]

“In the six prefectures hit hardest by the tsunami, a total of 23,600 hectares of farmland was damaged. Sixty percent of the total, or 15,000 hectares, is in Miyagi Prefecture. According to experts, it will be three to five years before land heavily salinized by seawater flooding recovers enough for crops to be grown there. Because of this, some farmers in coastal regions of Miyagi Prefecture have decided to form a collective to work inland plots that have not been in use.” [Ibid]

Nobuo Awano, a farmer, in Wakabayashi Ward, Sendai, near the Natorigawa river, grows spinach and Japanese radishes. Most of his two-hectare plot was was flooded with seawater on March 11. He has tried to grow leeks in the soil, but they rotted at the root. "The area I'm tilling is down to about one-tenth the size of what I'd work in a regular year," Awano said. [Ibid]

Local officials are working hard to revive the region's agricultural industry, and some farmers whose fields were flooded are considering organizing as a collective to work unoccupied plots inland. Agricultural co-op JA Sendai's operations cover about 7,000 hectares for rice and other crops, and about 2,000 hectares of that land--including Awano's plot--were drenched with seawater by the tsunami. Shusaku Takano, the manager of JA Sendai, said, "The [Wakabayashi Ward] district was a supply base for rice and vegetables for Sendai, a city with a population of 1 million," acknowledging the impact that can result from damage to one farming district. [Ibid]

The co-op has decided to lease idle land and make it available to farmers. It is also renting tools and machinery to farmers who lost equipment in the disaster. JA Sendai hopes member farmers will be able to plant crops such as Chinese cabbages in June. Although the prefectural government has expressed support for such a move, a number of farmers are reluctant to join the plan. "They don't want to be that far [from their own land]," Takano said. [Ibid]

Japanese Farmers Recover After the Tsunami

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The government has earmarked a total of 284.5 billion yen through the end of fiscal year 2013 as disaster restoration costs for farmland and agricultural facilities, mainly to remove salt and debris from farmland. Excluding radiation-affected Fukushima Prefecture and other areas with intensive damage, the government aims to complete the restoration of farmland by the end of fiscal 2014. Tohoku University Prof. Yutaka Nakai, an expert on microbiology, said major investments would be necessary to restore farm equipment and greenhouses. "The decrease in crop yields due to salt damage has hurt the affected farmers' incentive to work," Nakai said. "I think it's necessary for the government to actively support their business, offering financial help to make up for their reduced income." [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 8, 2013 ~~]

“Agriculture experts---as well as Indonesian farmers hit by a tsunami in 2004---say a quick recovery is possible, maybe within a year,” AP reported. “A key factor will be how long it takes for the salt to wash out from the fields, some still flooded with seawater.” Makie Kokubun, a professor at Tohoku University in Sendai, told AP, Japan’s coastal farmland has been damaged by salt from major typhoons in the past and farmers have been able to flush it clean. “Recovery may be faster than some think. The key is the water flow through the land, which varies by region,” he said. “There is also some evidence that light salt can actually help crops grow, though this is obviously in far greater amounts.” [Source: AP, March 27, 2011]

The 2004 tsunami ravaged rice fields in Indonesia’s Aceh Province and scientists made dire predictions of years without a crop. However, many recovered quickly. “Thank God, we were able to harvest rice just one year after the tsunami decimated my rice fields,” said Sulaiman Abdullah, 55, who farms 1,30 square meters in the village of Beuradeuen. “And the quality is even better than it was before, maybe because the mud, garbage and sea water brought in by the wave made the land more fertile,” he added. [Ibid]

Even if the soil recovers, farmers in Fukushima Prefecture---known for the light and sticky koshihikari strain of rice preferred by many Japanese---face another problem. Radiation from a damaged nuclear power complex has found its way into vegetables, raw milk and the water supply. Japanese consumers are notoriously fickle about food safety and may shun Fukushima products, even if health experts say the radiation is not a threat. [Ibid]

Many of the tsunami victims came from coastal families that have farmed for generations. In Miyagi Prefecture, the province that includes Sendai and Natori, farmland was converted from swamps about 400 years ago to generate funds for the local ruler. Now some older farmers, their homes gone and land in tatters, are saying they will call it quits. In Natori, 60-year-old rice farmer Kikuo Endo points to a shed full of ruined farm equipment, which he estimates was worth ¥10 million (US$125,000). He doesn’t know if insurance will cover it. “People shouldn’t give up, but I don’t think I will farm again,” he said. “It’s time to pass the baton to the next generation.” There may not be one. His three sons, he said, have abandoned the fields and moved to the city. [Ibid]

In the first supplementary budget passed in May 2011 farmers got ¥5.2 billion. Payments included ¥35,000 to rice farmers for every 0.1 hectare of land and ¥40,000 to growers of fruit and vegetables. \

Tsunami-Hit Farmers Struggle to Restore Damaged Soil

In March 2013, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Farmers whose fields were inundated by tsunami two years ago are finding that soil quality remains poor even after most of the deposited salt has been removed. A total of 13,470 hectares of farmland, accounting for 63 percent of the farmland damaged by tsunami caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, are scheduled to finish restoration and salt removal this spring. The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry says that it will become possible for farmers to resume planting. However, in many cases, the variety of crops that can be planted is limited and crop yields will drop due to the altered soil conditions. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 8, 2013 ~~]

“After trying about 10 kinds of vegetables, Kasamatsu last year pinned his hopes on komatsuna greens, which he anticipated would prove "salt-resistant." With efforts such as using organic fertilizer, he gradually improved their taste. However, the bunches of greens were smaller than those he had grown before the disaster. "I can put 10 bunches of komatsuna in a bag that it only took five bunches to fill before. As their sizes are different, their market value is low. I'm not making much of a profit," he said. ~~

Volunteers at Yotsuba Farm, a farming corporation in Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, are working hard to restore about 10 hectares of farmland in the city. Although large debris was removed by professionals, small debris such as shards of glass that become obstacles for farming "must be removed by sheer force of manpower," according to Kotaro Atami, representative of the corporation. ~~

Sachie Kajiro, 24, from Chuo Ward, Chiba, who participated in the volunteer work for the first time, said: "Small pieces of glass and debris buried in the farmland are a hazard. Every time we think that we have removed it all, other debris comes to the surface once a heavy machine turns the soil over." Soil deterioration is another problem. Atami removed salt from the farmland by repeatedly pouring water on his paddies last year. The corporation planted rice seedlings, hoping for the best, but about 20 percent of paddies yielded no harvest. Atami said: "The fertile soil that had been created through work over dozens of years is gone. The real start can take place now that the salt removal is finished." ~~

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, Daily Yomiuri, Japan Times, Mainichi Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2014

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