“There’s no guarantee that the decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi plant will go as planned, and even if it does, we’re looking at thirty to forty years. Even if I live to be a hundred, I don’t know if that will be long enough to see our community thriving again.”
- ProfileHaruo Ono
- Haruo Ono’s family has fished off the coast of Shinchi, Fukushima prefecture, for generations. The tsunami generated by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11th, 2011 claimed the life of his younger brother. Along with the rest of the fishing community, he has endured ten years of hardship after radioactivity from Fukushima Daiichi contaminated Fukushima’s fishing grounds. Just as signs of recovery were appearing on the horizon, a new development threatens to devastate Fukushima’s fishing industry for good.
Shinchi is a small fishing town lying on the Pacific coast near the northern tip of Fukushima prefecture, around 50 km north of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The radiation that leaked from the triple meltdown triggered by the tsunami of March 11th 2011 brought the Fukushima fishing industry to a standstill overnight. Although fishing operations have staged a gradual recovery in recent years, the future of the industry is once again in question as the Japanese government contemplates dumping over a million tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean.
A determination driven by the memory of his brother
Among the twenty thousand people that lost their lives in the Great East Japan Earthquake ten years ago was Ono’s younger brother, Tsuneyoshi. Every year on the anniversary of the disaster, Ono climbs aboard his boat at its mooring in Soma harbour and raises a toast to Tsuneyoshi’s memory.
Realising that the tsunami was on its way, the two Ono brothers made the decision to take their fishing boats out into the open sea in an attempt to protect them from the destructive force of the wave they knew would soon come crashing into the harbour. Although the older Haruo was unscathed, Tsuneyoshi and his vessel were caught by the tsunami. Communicating by wireless radio, the final transmission Haruo received from his brother was “The boat’s on its side! There’s nothing more I can do.” Although Haruo tried to locate Tsuneyoshi, his search was in vain, and his brother’s body would not be found for four whole months.
“My brother was a skilled fisherman. Now he’s gone, I need to live a life full enough for the both of us! I’ll still be fishing even when I’m a hundred years old!” insists Ono.
For him and the rest of the coastal community, fishing is not only a job but an entire way of life. As such, he feels a sense of duty to watch over the recovery of the industry, no matter how long it might take. When circumstances prevented him from going to sea, he made an effort to keep himself in top physical condition, climbing mountains and being careful with his diet, ready for the moment when he could resume fishing.
Robbed of a profession
Although the tsunami resulted in the most immediate devastation, it wasn’t long before an insidious new threat emerged – radioactive contamination released in the accident at Fukushima Daiichi was found to have contaminated the ocean.
A cloud of radioactivity was released across a wide area in the accident, leaving its mark not only on land but also in the sea, where it accumulated in the bodies of sea creatures. In particular, high levels of radiation soon began to be detected in certain species of bottom dwelling fish. Concerns over the radioactive fallout from Fukushima Daiichi entering the human food chain resulted in all sea fishing in Fukushima prefecture being put on hold for a year. Fishermen were eligible for a degree of compensation for their lost earnings, but the loss of income was only half the issue – denying them the chance to fish was to deny them their way of life and even identities.
Limited trial catches resumed in June 2012, and the restrictions on selling certain species that showed consistently low levels of radioactivity began to be relaxed. However, it would be a full nine years before the final restrictions on Fukushima fish were lifted in February 2020.
“Even though we’re allowed to sell our catch again, I can only get out to sea ten times per month during the trial period, and even that’s an improvement. We’re still a long way from being able to fish as we choose.”
Restrictions applied not only to the number of trips and the types of fish that could be caught and sold, but also to the fishing spots and methods of catching. Not only this, but the very mention of Fukushima is enough to put off potential buyers. Fish that are caught off the coast of Fukushima prefecture fetch much lower prices than identical fish from other regions, because of the association with the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Needless to say, Ono’s income is a fraction of what it was prior to 2011. However, the fishing community has stoically endured restriction after restriction in the hope that the industry would gradually return to something of its former self. Slowly but surely, the signs were starting to improve. Then the Japanese government dropped a fresh bombshell.
Tainted water that threatens the industry’s future
A new threat has emerged to the fishing grounds off the Pacfic coastline.
Groundwater and rain runoff flow constantly through the remains of the stricken Fukushima Daiichi reactor buildings, generating large quantities of radioactive contaminated water every single day. To prevent this water from flowing straight out into the Pacific Ocean, it is collected and stored in giant metal tanks that now cover much of the Fukushima Daiichi site. Over one million tons of this water have been collected so far. Although the contaminated water is subjected to specialised processing to remove some of the radioactive isotopes, the process is not effective on all contaminants, and the water is still tainted with tritium and strontium isotopes even after treatment. As space to store the water on the Fukushima Daiichi site is rapidly running out, the Japanese government appears to be leaning toward dumping the water in the Pacific Ocean as the simplest method of disposal. This would naturally spell disaster for the fishermen of Fukushima, who risk seeing all their sacrifices over the last decade count for nothing.
“We’ve struggled every step of the way for the last ten years, and things were just starting to look up. But if the water from Fukushima Daiichi is released into the sea, we’ll end up right back where we started. The government doesn’t seem prepared to discuss it or even give us a proper explanation.”
In February 2020, a government subcommittee set up to consider the problem of what to do with the contaminated water released a report announcing oceanic dumping to be the most ‘realistic’ solution. The Japanese government has held meetings with groups representing the fishing industry, ostensibly to ‘gather opinions’, but in reality simply going through the motions as they lay the groundwork for discharging the contaminated water. Needless to say, the plans are vehemently opposed by communities up and down the coast as well as further afield. Ono himself has been outspoken in his opposition to the proposals.
“The sea doesn’t stand still. We’ve waited so long to start fishing again, the sea itself has changed. We need to get out there to check how things have changed, but we still haven’t even been able to do that. On top of that, if this contaminated water gets dumped, no one will want to buy fish from Fukushima. Inevitably some of us will end up going out of business.”
The Fukushima fishing industry has spent the last ten years doing everything in its power to rebuild trust in the hope of recovering a modicum of self-sufficiency. All this would vanish in an instant if the government were to bulldoze ahead with its plans. The reality of life in Fukushima’s coastal communities is worlds away from the narrative of ‘recovery’ pushed by the Japanese government at every opportunity.
A sense of obligation to the next generation
“Ten years have passed since the accident, but not a single thing has been resolved. Right now, we also have the Covid-19 pandemic to worry about on top of everything that’s going on with Fukushima Daiichi. To be honest, it’s hard to see where things are going from here. I don’t even know whether I’ll be able to carry on fishing.”
Ono’s words speak of the deep wounds inflicted by the natural disasters of the earthquake and tsunami, but exacerbated by the human disaster of Fukushima Daiichi. Ten years on, these wounds are still far from healing.
What worries him most is what will become of Fukushima’s long relationship with the sea. Ono’s three sons have followed in his footsteps and become fishermen in their own right. As things stand, they are faced with the prospect of losing their profession, and Ono is unable to shake the feeling that he has done his own children a disservice by encouraging them to keep up the family tradition.
“I honestly have no idea what will happen to fishing in Fukushima if the contaminated water is released. No parent would wish their children to go into a profession with such an uncertain future. Given the way things are now, who would ever want to become a fisherman here?”
This explains why Ono feels it his duty to persevere against the odds in the hope of restoring Fukushima’s shattered fishing industry to its former status.
“Ten years on, we’ve barely made it halfway. The contaminated water is just one of many problems we’re having to deal with, so the future is impossible to read. There’s no guarantee that the decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi plant will go as planned, and even if it does, we’re looking at thirty to forty years. Even if I live to be a hundred, I don’t know if that will be long enough to see our community thriving again. Still, I feel like I need to see the recovery of Fukushima’s fishing industry with my own eyes.”
Ono speaks vividly of his desire to see an end to the ongoing chaos at Fukushima Daiichi and ensure his children and grandchildren have a future in the industry that has supported his family for generations. With that resolve, he prepares his boat to head out on his next stint as lifelong fisherman and advocate for Fukushima’s seas.