Fukushima salmon industry in peril with hatcheries stuck in evacuation zone

December 27, 2013

By HIROKI ITO/ Staff Writer

NARAHA, Fukushima Prefecture--Hideo Matsumoto stares at the surface of the Kidogawa river here, a quiet, tree-lined waterway where salmon have been caught for centuries. A forlorn expression forms on his face.

“I want fishing to make a full comeback soon,” says Matsumoto, the 65-year-old head of the Kidogawa river fishermen’s cooperative. “If we don’t resume fishing, the river won’t have many salmon coming up it.”

Unfortunately, Japan’s greatest salmon runs could see a huge drop in returning fish in two or three years’ time, putting the entire salmon business in Fukushima Prefecture in jeopardy.

Fishermen have been unable to hatch eggs or release young fish on five rivers in the prefecture because the hatcheries are located within the evacuation zone around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

In normal times in the town of Naraha, located along the Kidogawa river, salmon are caught in autumn and then their eggs are artificially inseminated. The hatchlings are released the following spring, and return to the river, where they were born, four or five years later to spawn.

But the majority of hatchlings released into the Kidogawa river immediately before the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 are believed to have been wiped out by the tsunami.

Since then, no salmon have been hatched or released because the disaster destroyed hatcheries, which cannot be repaired because they lie within the evacuation zone of the nuclear accident.

If the situation remains unchanged past 2014 or 2015, when the salmon released in 2010 are expected to return, then the number of fish making the run could plummet.

On Nov. 17, 11 members of the fishermen’s cooperative caught about 100 fish using the “combination net fishing” technique, in which they sent a net flowing downstream to meet another net that was set in position.

Fishing in the evacuation zone is generally prohibited by the Fukushima prefectural government. This excursion was a test to study the effects of radioactive substances. Although the levels have never exceeded detection limits since these test catches began last year, it is still not known when fishing can resume.

According to the cooperative, salmon have been caught in the Kidogawa river since the Edo Period (1603-1867). In 1911, the year the cooperative was formed, fishermen began breeding and releasing young salmon.

In 1983, hatcheries were built that could breed more than 10 million fish. And in 1995, more salmon were caught in the Kidogawa river than anywhere else on Japan’s main island of Honshu.

The Kidogawa river fishermen’s cooperative had supplied eggs to other cooperatives in the prefecture. A source at a prefectural fisheries experiment station said prolonged delays in reopening the hatcheries “could have an incalculable effect on future salmon fishing in Fukushima Prefecture.”

Decontamination work in Naraha is expected to wrap up in spring 2014, followed by the lifting of the evacuation order in the town. But even if the hatcheries are repaired after that time, it will be too late for the salmon that arrive in autumn 2014.

The cooperative aims to resume fishing in autumn 2015, but it is still not known if the evacuation order will be lifted next spring.

Adding to Matsumoto’s sense of crisis is the average age of the cooperative’s members: 66.

“At this rate, we won’t be able to pass on our techniques and it’ll mean the end of salmon fishing’s long history in the area,” he says.

Before the disaster, Fukushima Prefecture was consistently in the pack for third-largest catch of salmon behind Hokkaido and Iwate Prefecture. Fukushima Prefecture was also used to ship salmon roe and other processed goods.

But due to the evacuation zone encompassing hatcheries on five of the prefecture’s 10 rivers, the 2012 catch was around 58,000 fish, less than half the amount before the disaster.

The central government is using a subsidy program and other measures to revive the industry.

Salmon catches have recovered to nearly 90 percent of pre-quake levels in Miyagi Prefecture and to more than 60 percent in Iwate Prefecture, respectively. The two prefectures were also heavily hit by the 2011 disaster.

The delay in Fukushima Prefecture stands out.

The Kidogawa river has relatively low amounts of radiation and is expected to be the first among the five rivers in the evacuation zone where fishing will resume.

By HIROKI ITO/ Staff Writer
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These salmon were caught in the Kidogawa river on Nov. 17 in Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture, to check for radioactive substances. (Hiroki Ito)

These salmon were caught in the Kidogawa river on Nov. 17 in Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture, to check for radioactive substances. (Hiroki Ito)

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  • These salmon were caught in the Kidogawa river on Nov. 17 in Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture, to check for radioactive substances. (Hiroki Ito)

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