The future of Japanese fishing

Given the hammering Japan’s fishing towns took thanks to the earthquake/tsunami and the continued leaking of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant it is legitimate to question the future of fish in the region.

Just like the fishermen in the Gulf after the BP spill, seafood providers across Japan are concerned about an inevitable public relations fall out even if its fish stays available and safe, i.e. non-radioactive.

While the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, the world’s biggest — selling more than 400 species of fish six days a week, a $5.5 billion a year business providing 40 million Japanese fish-lovers – has not yet backed off selling anything, buyers have fallen off due to a lack of fish.

The most immediate concern is that so many of the small towns in the north – and their boats, docks, jetties, nets, tackle and fishermen – are gone. Fish farms and onshore processing plants have been wiped out, hundreds of thousands of wild fish washed onto shore, dead. As a result, scallops, sardines, oysters, seaweed, bonito and even shark’s fin have largely disappeared from Tsukiji in the past week.

The normally packed aisles of the sprawling market – the equivalent of 200 football fields under one roof — are quiet. “We’re not selling anything because there are no customers,” one wholesaler at the market reported. Sales to restaurants have fallen off too.” Sushi restaurants near the market are suffering too, in part due to the lack of tourists.Tsukiji’s general manager, Tsutomu Kosaka, told the New York Times, “It’s not like the brand is just damaged now – it’s over. At least for now, the brand is finished. Gone. It’s hopeless.”

The early consensus based on what’s happened so far at the struggling nuclear plant is that fish pulled from the sea off Japan should be safe, given that winds and currents will disperse any potentially dangerous particles before they can pollute. But Japan’s seafood export business – $2.4 billion last year – will definitely take a hit.

South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Singapore and the Philippines announced more intense screening of seafood from Japan. Many restaurants across Asia have stopped buying seafood from Japan. “Until the situation stabilizes in the country, it seems unlikely that guests will feel comfortable consuming Japanese products,” said the manager of the Hong-Kong-based Mandarin Oriental International hotels. The Four Season Hotel’s, also Hong Kong-based, has suspended import of all Japanese food, including scallops and abalone, buying instead from New Zealand and Australia, Scotland and Indonesia.

While dairy products (milk and eggs), grains, vegetables and meat might be susceptible to radioactivity exposure experts suggest that the impact on fish will be “negligible.”

Far from Japan, in Mumbai, caution was being taken. “You don’t know which fish is contaminated and which one is not. So the precautionary principle is to ban all fish coming from there,” said one nuclear expert.

The reality is that relatively little Japanese seafood makes it to the U.S.; your corner sushi restaurant is more likely to get its fish from China, Chile or Thailand. Most imports were stopped before the nuclear plants started leaking. Still the FDA said it may “increase and target product sampling” of goods from Japan for contamination.

One market that will most likely grow? Export of seafood from the U.S. to Japan, currently a $750 million a year industry. The 127 million Japanese depend on seafood as a staple, consuming twenty percent of the world’s seafood. But for the moment almost all exporting to Japan is on hold as the country rebuilds its infrastructure; simply delivering goods to many corners of the country has stopped.

But the short-term future of Japan’s fisheries may be most affected by perception rather than reality. The market for Gulf seafood is way off, nearly one year after the BP spill. Given the massive destruction along Japan’s coastline, the impact on its fishing grounds – and fish — could be felt far longer.

[flickr image via DigiPub]