ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi Prefecture--After catching a decent number of sea bass in Sendai Bay, Hisayoshi Otomo went through the normal routine of weighing the fish at a pier--and then tossing them back alive into the ocean.
The actions of the 55-year-old fisherman were not part of a catch-and-release method, but a result of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, located 100 kilometers south of the fishing port in Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, where Otomo operates from.
In April, 137 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilogram were detected in sea bass from Sendai Bay, exceeding the safety standard of 100 becquerels per kilogram for food items, which was tightened from 500 becquerels per kilogram on April 1.
The new standard means the sea bass are not allowed to reach the market.
At the urging of Miyagi Prefecture's fishermen's union, Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, agreed to compensate fishermen for 80 percent of their past catches if they remain on land, and for all their catches if they head out to sea to fish.
Otomo says compensation from TEPCO is not necessarily the reason he continues to fish.
"A fisherman is always eager to come home with bigger hauls than last year, be it for compensation or not," he said.
So Otomo keeps on rising early and setting out at 5:30 a.m. from the port aboard his No. 3 Yushin Maru.
On one morning in early May, a thick fog made the breakwaters barely visible, but Yasuhiro, Hisayoshi's 29-year-old son, was unflinching.
"We can't afford to take a day off just because of this," Yasuhiro said.
About 500 meters from the coast, the crew of four arrived at the first of the four locations where they had set their nets. When they hauled in the nets, fish of all sizes thrashed about on the deck, including striped mullet, cherry salmon, rays, tiger puffers and flatfish.
But at this time of the year, the crew was looking for sea bass, particularly the larger ones that measure 80 to 90 centimeters.
Sea bass can sell for up to 10,000 yen ($125) each in the summer.
The crew quickly sorted the 10 or so species of fish from the four fixed nets. They then headed for a fish market at Ishinomaki Fishing Port, which was heavily damaged by the tsunami on March 11 last year.
Baskets of fish were taken into large, temporary tents. But the sea bass did not share that fate. They were weighed on a scale at the pier and were reloaded onto the boat.
"Shall we start?" asked one of the fishermen once the No. 3 Yushin Maru had moved a certain distance from the fishing port. The crew took the live sea bass into their arms and chucked them one by one into the ocean.
Two of Otomo’s four fishing boats were seriously damaged by the tsunami. But he managed to repair them by collected parts and pieces from the debris that washed ashore.
Otomo was the first fisherman in the community to get his fishing business back on its feet.
But he is not happy, especially being unable to ship sea bass during the high-season summer months.
"This should have been the time for rebuilding (community life)," Otomo said.
Many fishermen have been hesitant to resume operations due to damage by the tsunami and the release of radioactive cesium into the sea from the nuclear plant.
Before the Great East Japan Earthquake hit, dozens of fishermen hauled in sea bass, but that number has shrunk to only a few, according to an official at the Ishinomaki fish market.
"We love the sea and we make a living from the sea," Yasuhiro said. "We wouldn’t need any money if only they could give us back a clean ocean. Compensation is no solution."
Otomo's crew that day caught 43 sea bass weighing 129 kilograms in total. In normal times, the fish would have sold for nearly 200,000 yen.
While it took two hours to catch the fish, the sea bass were all released into the ocean in less than a minute.
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