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Japan fishermen vow to rebuild tsunami-hit lives

by Staff Writers
Miyako, Japan (AFP) April 3, 2011
Fishermen whose livelihoods were devastated when the enormous tsunami hit Japan say they are determined to rebuild their industry on the sea that so cruelly turned against them.

Hundreds of salmon, trout and mackerel fishermen were killed in Miyako when the huge wave slammed into the northeast coast. Many more lost their boats and the infrastructure that supported them was washed away.

A stricken nuclear plant in Fukushima prefecture to the south has leaked radiation into the sea, raising food safety fears, although authorities say contaminants will be quickly diluted by ocean currents.

For now, though, there is little fishing anyway since most of the fleet on Honshu island's northeastern coast has been smashed.

In Miyako, as in other ports, vessels were scattered across the wrecked town, while cranes, fuel pumps and the fish market were destroyed.

"We felt the quake. The boat shook up and down, repeatedly. It was massive," said Seiichi Yamasaki, who has been fishing for 50 years.

He was 50 kilometres (30 miles) from shore in a 75-tonne boat with a crew of nine when the March 11 disasters hit.

"We didn't feel the tsunami. In the ocean it doesn't hit violently. It slowly rises," he told AFP.

His boat was unable to return to port for three days because of the turmoil in sea currents created by the earthquake and tsunami, which together killed more than 11,000 people, with over 15,000 still missing nationwide.

When they finally made it home, the destruction was beyond imagination.

"We saw it on TV, we had an idea what to expect. But when we saw it, it was much worse," he said.

About 1,000 fishing boats were registered in Miyako at the start of this year. There are now only about 20 left on the water, plus around 10 large deep-sea trawlers that survived the tsunami.

A small number of boats at port managed to ride out the wave by sailing into it, but they were the exception.

"Many fishermen lost their lives, but we haven't yet been able to confirm numbers," said Hideaki Kazehare, an official of the fishermen's union in Miyako.

Boats that did not make it can be seen scattered across town -- jammed under a bridge, stuck in the side of a house, or keeled over in a car park.

"I came down to my boat and saw that the water in the bay had been sucked back. I ran for my life," said Yoshio Sasaki, who has fished the waters around Miyako for more than 40 years.

"Some fishermen came to the harbour to secure their boats. Others thought it might be good to save your boat, but it's better to save your life," he said.

Fishing was a mainstay of the community in Miyako, which boasted 1,200 members of the fishermen's union.

But the industry has ground to a halt following the tsunami, as it has in dozens of other ports along the coast.

While boats are the most visible tools of the industry, vital supporting buildings and machinery were also annihilated on land.

"Factories, offices, all sorts of facilities were destroyed by the tsunami. There is hardly anything left, including cars and the machinery we need," said Kazehare.

None of the sailors has yet returned to fish.

"The large trawlers here haven't been out to sea because there are no cranes to unload their catch," Kazehare said.

Even if they could be unloaded, there is no market to sell the fish.

"It's going to take five or six months to rebuild the market," said Kiichiro Tanaka, manager of a frozen food factory on the sea front that stands cluttered with debris.

"Without boats you can't get fish. Without that there's nothing for us to process, so we've got nothing to sell," he said.

"Even if the boats went out there's nothing they would be able to do without the market."

His staff of 60 workers can be paid for about another month, but after that funds will run dry, he said.

"We can't go on without some kind of support. There's no work at the moment. We can't guarantee wages indefinitely," he said.

It is the same story all along the coast of Iwate prefecture, where before the tsunami hit there were about 10,000 members of the fishermen's union.

Together they produced 21,500 tonnes of fish and marine products in 2007, the last year for which figures were available, worth 44 billion yen ($531 million).

"At the moment we haven't yet made a recovery plan. Members of our union are still busy clearing up the damage," Kazehare said.

"We'll save the boats that are salvageable. We'll hoist them up with cranes and bring them back to the sea. But the ones that are beyond repair will have to be scrapped," he said.

"The fishing industry is something we have to re-establish here. Because fishing is what we do," he said.

Yamasaki says he is not prepared to let five decades at sea end with the tsunami, vowing to get back on the ocean some time in April.

"We'll manage somehow. Once we get a freezer and ice-makers at port, and we're able to get fuel, we'll be all right. Sure, I'll be going back to sea," he said.

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