Katsushi Abe looks at his fishing boat in Matsukawaura Port in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, on Sept. 3. (Satoshi Otani)
FUKUSHIMA -- Fisherman Katsushi Abe is still drawn to the sea each day where he has fished for more than 45 years, although these same troubled waters are now filled with fish that scare many customers.
So, the 61-year-old man just watches his boat moored in Matsukawaura Port in Soma in northern Fukushima Prefecture, where fishing in coastal waters is prohibited due to concerns of radioactive contamination.
"I know that even if I come here, I cannot go fishing," Abe said. "But I come here because I have much free time."
During the peak commercial fishing seasons for Japanese sand lances, he enjoyed sales of more than 3 million yen (about $39,200) a month.
Currently, however, Abe is working in an effort by the government to remove rubble left from the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, for which he is paid 12,000 yen a day.
When he goes to the offing to help researchers of radioactive materials at sea, the nets are often filled with fish.
"The fish are there," he said.
Fishing is gradually resuming at ports in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures that were hit hard in the disaster. In Fukushima Prefecture, however, coastal fishing is still suspended even more than six months later, as contamination of fish and other marine products by radioactive materials is continuing.
Though local fisheries cooperative associations are considering resumption of operations on an experimental basis, fishermen fear being hurt by rumors that Fukushima products are contaminated by radioactive materials from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Immediately after the accident at the plant, the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations asked that coastal fishing throughout the prefecture be halted. Since then, fishing has been suspended along there.
A few months after the nuclear accident, some fishermen in the northern part of the prefecture campaigned strongly for the resumption of fishing. In the areas, damages to fishing boats were relatively minor. In addition, there were few cases in which radioactive materials that exceeded the government's permissible standards were detected in fish and other marine products that were caught in sampling.
In late July, the federation decided to allow fishing by the Soma-Futaba fisheries cooperative association in Soma to resume on an experimental basis. Around the same time, news of the radioactive contamination of beef from the prefecture spread.
In the federation's meeting held in late August, a participant said, "Seeing the beef situation, no one will buy fish (from Fukushima Prefecture) even if the contamination level is lower than the government's standards. In that case, who will assume responsibility?"
Similar opinions were repeatedly expressed. Eventually, the federation was forced to postpone the resumption of fishing by Soma-Futaba fisheries cooperative association members.
In a meeting held Sept. 22, the federation decided that each fisheries cooperative association should work out plans for resumption of fishing and resume operations on an experimental basis as early as November. However, whether they can actually resume fishing is not certain.
Radioactive contamination at sea is a reality that exists and is adding to the fishermen's anxieties.
Immediately after the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant, radioactive materials that exceed the government's permissible standards were detected in fish, including the Japanese sand lances, which swim near the surface.
Since May, radioactive materials that exceed the government's standards have also been detected in fish and other marine products that swim or live on the sea floor. They include bastard halibuts, fat greenlings and shellfish.
On Aug. 29, 18 tons of bonito were unloaded at Onahama Port in Iwaki in southern Fukushima Prefecture, marking the first time since the March 11 disaster that fish were offloaded there. The fish were caught in the sea off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, and no radioactive contamination was detected in the fish in checks conducted immediately after they were caught.
With the label that read, "No detection," the fish were shipped not only to areas in Iwaki but also in the Tokyo metropolitan area. In Iwaki, wholesalers paid between 340 yen and 350 yen per kilogram for the fish. In some supermarkets there, the bonitos were sold out within two hours after they were put on sale.
In Tsukiji market in Tokyo, however, they brought only 100 yen a kilogram.
"As I expected, the price was extremely low," said the 57-year-old owner of the fishing boat that caught the bonitos.
"I fully realized that fish won't sell in Tokyo (at appropriate prices) if they were landed (on ports) in Fukushima Prefecture. People's anxieties over products (from our prefecture) is strong," he added.
Before catching bonitos in the sea off Miyagi Prefecture, the fleet of bonito fishing boats based in Onahama had fished 11 times in waters around Hachijojima island, about 290 kilometers south of Tokyo, since June.
Told by brokers that they would not be able to find customers and retailers if the fish were unloaded at Onahama Port, the fishing boats had been forced to offload their fish in Choshi, Chiba Prefecture, and Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture. Some middlemen there had bought the fish at a price of as high as 360 yen a kilogram.
This time, however, they persuaded the brokers to let them sell their catch at Onahama. However, sales in Tokyo were disappointing.
At Hisanohama Port in Iwaki, in a normal year, this would be the busiest time. On Sept. 1, the ban on trawl fishing of bastard halibuts and some other fish was lifted. Fishing of whitebaits would also be at its peak.
This year, however, fishermen there are only busy removing rubble from the quiet fish market.
Fifty-three-year old fisherman Masayuki Shirado is worried that members' fishing skills are becoming dulled.
"We look for fish by seeing the water colors and climate. Young fishermen cannot learn that sense unless they go fishing."
He fears that young fisherman will look for other jobs to stabilize their incomes.
"If such a situation takes place, the fishing in Fukushima (Prefecture) will end," he added.
(This article was written by Satoshi Otani and Takemichi Nishibori)