Japanese fisherman embrace tsunami as a chance to reinvent their industry

The World

Last year’s tsunami virtually destroyed many northern Japanese fishing communities. A year later, residents are struggling to rebuild, but some are finding that the disaster has given them the opportunity to chart a new course.

On March 11, Hiromitsu Ito stood on a rocky hillside and watched a wave more than a hundred feet tall swallow the shore below, lift his house off its foundation, and slam it into a nearby bridge. When the massive wave pulled back out to sea, it dragged everything with it — his house, his boat, his fishing gear, his entire aquaculture business. Pretty much everything else in the small fishing village of Ogatsu.

Hundreds died that day. And since then even more have left for good. A year later, less than a quarter of Ogatsu’s 4,000 residents remain.

Before the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan’s northeast coast a year ago, this jagged and dramatic stretch of coastline, some 270 miles northeast of Tokyo, was one of the country’s biggest sources of shellfish and seaweed. Its long, narrow inlets provided calm waters that were perfect for aquaculture. But it was those same steep inlets that caused the tsunami to reach such incredible heights here and cause massive damage to the coast and the region’s fishing industry. Ninety percent of its fishing boats were destroyed, and more than 300 ports were heavily damaged.

In the year since then, government recovery funds for fishermen have been slow to materialize, so those who chose to stay have largely been left their own devices.

One elderly couple spends their days scavenging the rubble of the town for fishing gear they might be able to repair and use. The woman said they’re among the fortunate because her husband saved their boat by taking it out to sea before the tsunami hit.

But it was an experience that still haunts him. The woman said her husband yells out in his sleep. He says he wasn’t scared, but she said she knows the truth.

A year after the disaster the couple are able to fish a little, but with no commercial buyers, they’ve just been selling to friends.

Things don’t look much better for the others who used to make their living from the sea. Only a handful of the people left in Ogatsu still fish, and in a recent survey more than a third of the fishermen in the region said they’re getting out of the business for good.

But for some of those who remain, the disaster has created an odd sort of opportunity — the chance to over, doing things differently.

Ito said the fishing industry was in trouble long before the tsunami. At 50-years-old, Ito is a relative youngster — a year ago the average fisherman was more than 60, and few children were willing to take over. Meanwhile the market price for fish and aquaculture products was falling.

So for Ito, and a handful of others, the recovery is less about rebuilding Ogatsu on land than about what happens at sea.

The rocky coastline here sunk more than three feet during the earthquake, leaving many docks partially submerged. But Ito’s has been repaired, and on a cold mid-winter morning he headed out on the bay for a look at his new aquaculture operation.

There’s nothing unique about it—the boat, the salmon pens, the buoys and lines for growing seaweed, oysters, scallops and sea squirts — it’s all technology that’s been around for decades. 

What is new is how Ito and his business partners paid for it. They formed a company together, and instead of selling their products through the local fishing cooperative at a set price, they’re selling straight to the consumer.

Ito said it’s those consumers who made it possible for him and his partners to start over. Their company adopted something similar to the community-supported agriculture model that’s become popular in the United States. They’re selling memberships, and so far have raised more than $300,000, money they’ve used to buy boats, seed oysters and new equipment. In return, the 2,500 members, many from as far away as Tokyo, get a share of the harvest.

Ito said by selling these scallops and his other products directly to consumers, he and his partners will make 1.5 times what they made before.

This isn’t the first time fishermen here have attempted direct sales, but in a fishing culture that fiercely resists change and shuns any outsiders, Ito said what makes his venture different is that he brought in marketing experts from Tokyo. The company has adopted a feisty clenched fist as a logo, and it’s name — Oh Guts! — a play on the name of their village, Ogatsu, represents the group’s determination and will to do something new. The company even plans to set up a shop in Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish Market.

Ito said he and his partners have encountered a lot of resistance to their new way of doing things, especially from older fishermen who want to keep things the way they were. Out on the water, Ito cringed at a request to go talk with another group of fishermen nearby.

“Those people are hard to deal with,” he said.

But even the most stubborn are being forced to innovate in the face of disaster. Members of some of the most traditional fishing communities along this coast have begun a temporary pool system, in which they share both the gear that remains and the profits they make.

Still, Ito said there’s something essential that’s missing on the boats of those who criticize his new approach: young people.

Ito’s crew these days, on the other hand, are both men in their 20’s. One is a young volunteer who quit his job in pharmaceutical sales to help out. The other is Ito’s 20-year-old nephew, Yuku Miura.

Miura said after the tsunami he quit his job as a hotel chef in Sendai, 50 miles away, in order to join his uncle. Fishing had never appealed to him, and it’s not the money that got him excited about coming back to his hometown. What attracted him the most, he said, is the idea of making something and then interacting directly with the people who are buying and enjoying that product.

“The old system where fishermen sold to dealers and middlemen was nothing more than a machine,” Miura said.

Like most young people from this part of Japan, Miura had left for better prospects elsewhere. And like his uncle, he also lost his family home in the tsunami. But out here on the same water that took it away, Miura is surprised to find a future for himself he never would have imagined.

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