A decision by the South Korean government on Sept. 6 to ban Japanese seafood imports from eight prefectures could possibly gut an already ailing fisheries industry and sink plans by the government to double exports by 2020.
Hiroshi Kishi, head of the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, expressed his concerns in a meeting on Sept. 6 with Toshimitsu Motegi, the minister of economy, trade and industry. Kishi initially requested the meeting to ask Motegi to call on the government to take every measure possible to deal with the problem of radiation-contaminated water leaking from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The South Korean government announced its ban on Japanese seafood imports just before the meeting, casting an even larger cloud over the future of the Japanese fisheries industry.
Seoul was forced to halt imports due to increasingly strong public concerns about contaminated water flowing into the ocean off the Fukushima coast.
The South Korean media has been giving major coverage to the issue on a daily basis. Meanwhile, rumors have spread over the Internet about the discovery of strange looking fish and suspicions that Japanese fish are being falsely labeled as being from South Korea or Russia.
Citizens groups in South Korea had been calling on the government to take action. Criticism has also been raised against Japan, with deep mistrust over whether Japan is disclosing all information about the contaminated water.
Such concerns have even spread to the South Korean fisheries industry. Business at the Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul has been hurt by a sharp decrease in sales of Alaska pollock, which is mainly imported from Japan. In late August, auction prices had fallen to about one-fourth the level of the same period last year. Domestic seafood sales have also suffered.
Conversely, seafood caught off the coast of Africa has increased in popularity.
One diplomatic source in Seoul said, "If nothing was done, criticism would have been directed at the South Korean government. It likely believed there was a need to placate the public by taking serious measures."
South Korea has been a major export market for Japanese fishermen.
Alaska pollock and scallops caught off Hokkaido and the Tohoku region are popular in South Korea. Before the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, annual exports reached about 20 billion yen ($201 million). However, that figure dropped by more than half to 9.2 billion yen in 2012.
A joint effort by the public and private sectors to increase exports had been proceeding when the latest South Korean government decision was made.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has asked Seoul to retract the decision, with a high-ranking ministry official saying, "The South Korean decision lacks an internationally accepted scientific basis."
While Japan could submit the case to the World Trade Organization or the International Court of Justice, such moves would likely only further aggravate the already strained ties between the two nations.
At the same time, if South Korea's position does not change and such moves spread to other nations, that would represent a major blow to Japan's fisheries industry.
Prefectures in the Tohoku region have established brand seafood products such as shark fin, oysters, and abalone that are exported to various nations.
In August, the farm ministry compiled a plan to double the exports of food and agricultural products to about 1 trillion yen by 2020. The plan included a goal of doubling seafood exports from the current 170 billion yen a year to 350 billion yen.
At a Sept. 6 news conference, Yoshimasa Hayashi, the farm minister, said: "To prevent concerns from spreading to other nations, the entire central government will become involved in dealing with the contaminated water problem. We will also transmit the results of what we have done."
Some of the prefectures directly affected by the South Korean ban had already been hurt even before the decision was made.
While exports of seafood from the two major fishing ports in Miyagi Prefecture totaled about 9,000 tons in 2010, the figure dropped to about 3,000 tons in 2012, the year after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. However, the figure for the first seven months of this year had reached 2,000 tons.
Exports of scallops resumed last autumn, but ever since reports surfaced about contaminated water off the Fukushima coast, it became more difficult to sell scallops to South Korea.
Seafood exports match those of apples in Aomori Prefecture. In 2011, a total of about 200 million yen for just scallops and squid were exported to South Korea. All the seafood has gone through testing for radioactive materials, and so far only Pacific cod has been found to exceed government standards. However, the ban on Pacific cod exports was also lifted after its radioactivity levels decreased.
Aomori Governor Shingo Mimura expressed confidence in being able to continue to show safe levels of radioactivity.
A major reason for the concerns about contaminated water is the huge amount of highly radioactive water that flowed in the ocean in the months immediately after the Fukushima nuclear accident. The amount of water was about 350 times the total of what flowed into the ocean subsequently. That is believed to be the main reason radioactivity levels exceeding national standards were detected off the coast of Fukushima at that time.
However, a Fisheries Agency official said, "There have been no recent reports of a sharp increase in detection levels. There have been no immediate effects on marine life."
Still, there are concerns about the effects of negative publicity.
Iwate Prefecture exports Alaska pollock and Pacific saury. An official at the prefectural government said it would be difficult to avoid negative effects from the recent reports about contaminated water.
Concerning how to get rid of negative publicity, Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato said: "We are conducting strict inspections and only safe products are going to the market. Providing accurate information will lead to eliminating (negative publicity)."
(This article was compiled from reports by Akihiko Kaise in Seoul and Yuriko Suzuki and Masanobu Furuya in Tokyo.)
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