Japanese Fishermen Bring Back First Tuna Since Quake

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Photos of big tuna hanging from their tails usually leave me a little cold, particularly when those tuna have been caught in Japan, the world’s largest consumer of the endangered bluefin.

But this picture released today by the Yomiuri, a Japanese daily, makes me feel… if not exactly warm and fuzzy… at least a little relieved. It’s the first catch of tuna to be landed since the March 11 quake decimated the northeast’s fishing industry. The haul of some 17 tons came into the Shiogama port in Miyagi prefecture, one of the worst affected in last month’s disasters. Japan’s tuna boats go out to sea to find schools of the lucrative fish for weeks and months at a time. The Hoyo Maru No. 18 was out at sea in the Mariana Islands, north of Guam, when the captain heard there had been a quake and tsunami, he told the Mainichi Daily News.

Shiogama, one of the nation’s biggest tuna ports, took a beating last month. In addition to the over 18,000 fishing boats damaged in the tsunami, the industry infrastructure up and down the Tohoku coast was seriously hurt. A week after the tsunami struck, in the northern fishing town of Misawa, I asked the head of the local fishing association if anybody had gone out since the disasters. “No no no no no no,” he said emphatically. At that time, there was no fuel for the boats. There was no electricity to make ice to keep the fish cold. There was not even a building anymore where the ice used to be made.  “There is nothing,” he said. A tuna trade magazine reported that the industry was hit hard around Sendai, where skipjack and albacore (both smaller and less endangered than the larger bluefin and bigeye tunas) are fished.

Meanwhile, fishermen further south are weathering the effects of the ongoing nuclear crisis. On Thursday, a Fukushima cooperative canceled their abalone and urchin fishing due to radioactive contamination, according to NHK. Several nations have banned or limited food imports from Japan, and the nation’s roughly $1.5 billion seafood export sector is suffering. Sales are down by over half at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market, where in January a giant bluefin tuna was auctioned for the record price of nearly $400,000. Some wholesalers there have simply shuttered up.

Today’s landing of 17 tons of fish won’t recharge the northeast’s fishing industry alone. But for one morning, the fish market in Shiogama swung back into action and a little life was breathed back into a corner of the world that needed it. Tomorrow, we can revisit how Japan, in better times, could be a more responsible steward of the world’s tuna stocks. Today, let’s appreciate the news of this first catch because it signals the return of something that’s all too elusive in Japan these days — normalcy.

(See pictures of the tuna trade in the Philippines.)