Fukushima’s fishers have constantly been the last to know about decisions which directly impact their livelihoods and way of life. That needs to change.
The port of Onahama, in southern Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, exudes a quiet busy-ness on a warm spring day. Fishers come and go in tiny white trucks, unloading their catches in blue plastic crates. White, blue and red flags, emblazoned with a stylised tuna logo, flutter in the wind outside the new red brick fish market. In the food hall across the road, vendors twist skewers of grilled shellfish and keep a watchful eye on deep vats of steamed clams. A sign above a plastic model of the day’s special proudly declares that the deep-fried oysters come from a port only 20km up the coast.
Just over a decade ago, Onahama’s port buildings stood battered and empty. The Fukushima coast was badly damaged by the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. The few coastal fishing boats that survived the tsunami sat tied to the quayside, facing an uncertain future under the voluntary suspension of coastal fisheries in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear accident.
Since then, Fukushima’s coastal fisheries have been on a long and slow process of rehabilitation. Reaching the point where Fukushima fish can once again be sold freely in shops and restaurants has required the prefecture’s fisheries cooperatives and governors to not only understand the science, but crucially also reassure the public that Fukushima fish are safe and delicious.
However, the Fukushima nuclear accident is not over. Just a short drive up the coast at the Fukushima Dai’ichi site sit dozens and dozens of light blue tanks, each filled with water containing radioactive substances that plant operator TEPCO and the Japanese Government plan to release into the Pacific Ocean.
Despite fishing within sight of these tanks, fishers in Fukushima feel they are the last to know every time TEPCO or the Japanese Government make a decision about the next step in their management plans for this water.
Scores of experts have come to Fukushima to advise the Japanese Government on the technical process of releasing the treated water. Fukushima’s fishing communities feel overlooked and sidelined in these discussions too.
Now, with only the final details to be confirmed before the first gallons of treated water are pumped into the Pacific, Fukushima’s fishers fear it may be too late to stop their hard work in building trust and getting local fish back on menus and shopping lists from being undone.
Although Fukushima’s fishers would rather the releases didn’t happen at all, local fisheries cooperatives acknowledge the complexity of the situation at the nuclear plant and realise that doing nothing may not be an option.
Rather, their main concern is the manner in which the decision-making process has proceeded. The decision to release treated water into the sea was made by an expert technical committee in Japan. Formal consultations with Fukushima’s fisheries cooperatives did not begin until most details about the proposed releases were firmed up, leaving little room for dialogue on how the release process could be designed around local fishing activities.
It may be too late to revisit the decision to release the treated water into the sea. But going forward, involving Fukushima’s fishers in deciding when treated water should be released, studies that should be done to track the movement of radioactive particles and protocols for monitoring fish and other marine species, will give them a sense that the importance of the sea to their livelihoods is respected.
The international community of expertise on environmental radioactivity can also do more to listen to Fukushima’s fishers.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is providing support with the releases at the request of the Japanese Government. The IAEA has established a taskforce on Fukushima treated water and made multiple visits to the plant site. However, to date much of the IAEA’s focus has been on technical processes at the Fukushima Dai’ichi site itself, and on the physical scientific basis for confirming safety.
If future IAEA delegations were able to get out and meet with the fisheries cooperatives and coastal stakeholders while they were in Fukushima, it would give the international science-policy community a richer picture of why Fukushima’s fishers are concerned and of what might be done to allay those concerns.
Including people who have global experience in the social and cultural aspects of long-term environmental radioactivity in technical committees and taskforces, such as social scientists and even citizens from affected areas in other countries, could give the Japanese Government and indeed the fisheries cooperatives new insights into how to manage this challenging situation.
Fukushima’s fishers have very legitimate concerns about what the treated water releases may mean for their livelihoods. But it’s important not to jump to conclusions about how consumers will respond to the treated water releases.
Public surveys and social media analysis have shown that consumers in north-east Japan — where a large proportion of Fukushima fish is consumed — are very well-informed on marine radioactivity, and may be prepared to continue to eat Fukushima fish after releases start.
But a clear plan from the Japanese Government and TEPCO for how they intend to track any effects of the treated water releases on the uptake of Fukushima fish, and how they will support Fukushima’s fishers if there are any down-turns in the prices or consumption of Fukushima fish, will again give reassurance that fishers’ lives are not being overlooked in the rush to avoid running out of space for treated water at the Fukushima Dai’ichi site.
If fishers are to feel valued and respected, any plans for compensation or countermeasures ought to recognise that fishing isn’t just a source of revenue for fishers. It’s a whole way of life, and a key marker of identity and pride for fishers and for coastal communities in Fukushima.
The fish market at Onahama quickly sells out of local fish on most days. Office workers, travelling business people, tourists and school parties gobble up the fresh produce. But it wasn’t down to luck that Fukushima fisheries bounced back so well just a decade after a major nuclear accident. It has taken a lot of scientific effort, risk communication and investment in infrastructure to get this far.
This was driven by the pride Fukushima’s fishers have in their sea and their work. It’s vital science-policy communities within Japan and internationally recognise this and give Fukushima’s fishers a fuller voice in the management of treated water.
Dr Leslie Mabon is a Lecturer in Environmental Systems in the School of Engineering and Innovation at the Open University in the United Kingdom. He is an environmental social scientist, with expertise in understanding how coastal communities respond to environmental change.
His research into the revitalisation of Fukushima’s fisheries and coastal societies has been funded by the Japan Foundation, the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the Royal Society of Edinburgh among others. You can read more about his research at resilientcoastal.zone or on Twitter @ljmabon
This article has been republished ahead of Japan’s plan to release nuclear wastewater from August 24, 2023. It originally appeared on April 14, 2023.
Editors Note: In the story “Fukushima water” sent at: 12/07/2023 13:00.
This is a corrected repeat.