In tsunami-hit Kesennuma, fishing industry recovers but scars remain

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STAFF WRITER

A stranger visiting the fishing port of Kesennuma today may not realize that six years ago it suddenly became the scene of massive, deadly devastation.

Much of the land in the port’s waterfront area remains vacant, except for the foundations of hundreds of structures swept away by tsunami reaching up to 10 meters that struck on March 11, 2011, killing about 20,000 people along the Tohoku region’s coast.

Kesennuma is one of the biggest Tohoku fishing ports, and seafood firms have been key players in the local economy.

Sales at the local wholesale fish market last year amounted to 92.36 percent of the pre-disaster level, reaching ¥16.89 billion in October in an apparent recovery.

Yet six years after the disaster, scars perhaps not conspicuous to outsiders remain, as does the trauma that befell the survivors.

Naomitsu Onodera, an official of the Kesennuma Fishery Processor’s Cooperative Association, said he has felt gloomier over the past few years.

“There are too many difficult problems, and I don’t feel we are going in the right direction,” he said.

Despite the recovery in sales at the fish market, catches in terms of tonnage were only 69.9 percent of the pre-disaster level as of October.

This means fishing boats bring smaller hauls to Kesennuma, resulting in a surge in prices, Onodera said.

“Fishermen are OK, and the fishing boats are OK, too,” Onodera said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “But seafood processing businesses that buy the fish are suffering, in particular small ones. They are closer to consumers, so it’s hard for them to raise prices.”

Onodera said the fish hauls at Kesennuma have declined considerably, apparently due to climate change and overfishing by rival boats from other countries.

Small seafood firms have been hit particularly hard because it took them longer to resume operations after the disaster. Big businesses quickly reopened factories and re-established sales channels, he said.

According to the Kesennuma Fishery Cooperative Union, the wholesale price of katsuo (bonito) surged to ¥334.6 per kilogram last year from ¥216.6 in 2010, and that of sanma (Pacific saury) rose to ¥161.9 from ¥105.2. Those price hikes have badly plagued fish-processing firms in Kesennuma, Onodera said.

After the disaster, many workers switched to higher-paying jobs, including working on the ongoing massive reconstruction projects in the disaster zone. Others left Kesennuma because the small fish-processing firms were unable to quickly reopen their factories.

This has only worsened the labor shortage at the small companies, local officials said.

In general, fish-processing factories pay low wages, and the work is often referred to as “3K,” for kitsui (demanding), kitanai (dirty) and kiken (dangerous.)

The job-to-applicant ratio at fish-processing firms surged to as high as 4.74 in Kesennuma as of September, meaning that for every applicant there are 4.74 job openings on average.

Not only is the long-term fate of small firms uncertain, but that of the coastal region as a whole appears in doubt as the central government cuts back on huge reconstruction budgets.

“Big (public works) projects are now being completed,” Akihiko Sugawara, head of the Kesennuma Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said in a recent interview. “Workers who came to Kesennuma for that work have gradually started leaving since last summer.”

Last year about 380,000 people came to and stayed overnight in Kesennuma, and half were believed to have been involved in post-disaster public works projects.

When those projects end, all of these people “could disappear” from Kesennuma, Sugawara said, with “a big impact” on the local economy.

Still, Sugawara sees some hopeful signs. Local business leaders in recent years have tried to boost tourism, pushing the appeal of Kesennuma’s well-known fisheries industry.

They offer tours allowing visitors to enter huge frozen fish warehouses and eat shaved ice. Children can watch how giant fish and sharks are filleted and eat them after they are barbecued.

The tours started with just 30 visitors in 2013, but last year the number surged to 2,000.

“We want to make this a sustainable industry,” Sugawara said. “We are trying to add value to the fishery industry.”

At the center of the main bay in Kesennuma, the city plans to build a massive tsunami barrier and a new downtown area inside it.

But due to construction troubles and disputes over land rights, the plan has been considerably delayed. The downtown bay area, once the symbol of the thriving port, has yet to be redeveloped.

Sugawara said he hopes the redevelopment project will start this summer and be finished by June or July next year.

“Reconstruction will continue and won’t be finished for six or seven years,” he said. “I’d like people (outside the disaster-hit areas) to understand this.”

Over the past six years, central government officials in charge of Kesennuma’s reconstruction have rotated out, and newly appointed officials have become more and more “businesslike,” Sugawara said.

“Disaster-hit areas still have many problems,” he said.

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