SOMA, Fukushima Prefecture--Fishermen in this northeastern city set out on a trial fishing operation on June 14 in hopes of resuming their work after voluntarily refraining from going to sea following the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year.
The fishermen came home with their first catch in 15 months amid positive expectations and fears of negative publicity.
Six trawlers of the Soma-Futaba fishermen's union left Matsukawaura Port in Soma around 1 a.m. and headed for waters near the border of Miyagi Prefecture, about 50 kilometers to the northeast.
They caught two species of octopus and one sea snail species from depths of more than 150 meters. No radioactive substances were detected in those species during monitoring surveys after the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
The catches will be screened for radioactive content, before and after processing by boiling. The catches will not be for sale.
The results of the inspections will be presented June 18 to a meeting of the heads of fishermen's unions under the umbrella of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations. If product safety is confirmed, trial fishing will again be held on June 20 and 27, for the same three species.
If no problem is found during post-processing inspections, the catches will be shipped to markets in Fukushima Prefecture, Tokyo and Nagoya to gauge how consumers will respond.
"I felt so tense because I hadn't gone out fishing in quite a long time," said Hiroyuki Sato, a 56-year-old member of the Soma-Futaba fishermen's union who led the fleet of trawlers. "I am filled with deep emotion because we have managed to come so far. I hope no radioactive substances will be detected."
Fusayuki Nanbu, the 78-year-old head of the Soma-Futaba fishermen's union, said he had mixed feelings about the future.
"We have marked an initial step toward returning to what the life of fishermen should normally be like," Nanbu said. "But on the other hand, I am concerned about possible negative publicity when our products hit the market."
The waters off Fukushima Prefecture, where the warm Kuroshio current meets the cold Oyashio current, are fertile fishing grounds. Seven fishermen's unions in the prefecture have a total of about 1,500 members, with inshore fishing thriving in the neighborhood of Soma and Futaba, and offshore and ocean fishing prospering in the neighborhood of Iwaki.
After the Fukushima nuclear accident, however, fishermen voluntarily refrained from fishing, except for some engaged in deep sea fishing.
According to officials at the Fisheries Agency, radioactive cesium has not recently been detected in surface and mid-depth waters in the Pacific Ocean off Fukushima Prefecture. That is because radioactive fallout from the accident and radioactive leaks from the stricken nuclear plant have diffused and have been diluted in seawater, the officials said.
More than 10,000 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilogram were found in young sand lances after the nuclear disaster, but the readings are now below 10 becquerels. Similar tendencies have also been observed in other fish species, such as sardine, mackerel and horse mackerel, which live in surface and mid-depth waters.
The problem lies in water near the seabed, where radioactive cesium concentrations are falling only slowly because radioactive deposits have bonded with bottom soil. Consequently, many bottom fish species, including greenling and flatfish, continue to demonstrate readings above the food safety standard of 100 becquerels per kilogram.
Radioactive cesium has not been detected in squid and octopuses, including the species selected for the latest trial fishing.
"That is probably because radioactive substances left their bodies as the seawater became cleaner," said an official at the Research and Technological Guidance Division of the Fisheries Agency. "Invertebrates match their internal salinity to that of the seawater."
The prefectural federation of fishermen's unions said it has demanded that Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, compensate fishermen for their lost incomes due to the suspension of fishing and for maintenance and repairs of their boats. TEPCO has so far paid about 10 billion yen ($126 million), the federation said.
Meanwhile, Naomi Hirose, managing director and incoming president of TEPCO, said on June 14 that the utility will begin compensating fishermen for the depreciation in the value of fish due to negative publicity stemming from the nuclear disaster.
Hirose visited the Reconstruction Agency, where he was asked by Reconstruction Minister Tatsuo Hirano to compensate fishermen for such losses.
"If products don't sell at their normal prices, we will have to cover the difference as damage due to negative publicity," Hirose told reporters after the visit.
He added that TEPCO will consult the Fisheries Agency on how to determine the amounts of the compensation.
"I think we are basically concerned about areas centered on Fukushima," Hirose said. "We will have to take action after determining which fish species are being adversely impacted."
He said TEPCO will consider how to determine the amounts of compensation by referring to similar cases of farm and other products that have been hit by negative publicity. That's because the current case cannot be dealt with in the framework of existing rules on compensation for shipment bans specific to fish species and for suspension of fishing operations.
(This article was compiled from reports by Tatsuya Sasaki, Keiichiro Inoue and Tetsuya Kasai.)
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