After Quake, Japanese Fishing Port Remains At Risk

Aug 24, 2011
Originally published on August 24, 2011 8:46 am

At first glance, the Japanese fishing port of Kesennuma looks like it's making a comeback from last March's devastating tsunami. A half-dozen fishing boats arrive one morning in this city of 70,000 and unload tons of bonito onto a partially rebuilt port.

The fish roll down a conveyor, beneath a freshwater shower, and splash into plastic bins filled with ice water. Mitsuo Iwabuchi, a wholesaler bidding on the catch, says the port is improving, but the infrastructure that drives it, including scores of fish-processing and ice-making factories, still lies in ruins.

Iwabuchi's two processing plants were among those destroyed. Unable to cut up, freeze and package fish in any volume, the port can only handle one-tenth of the catch it used to.

"When we had factories, we used to make bonito sashimi and we'd freeze them and ship them to Thailand," says Iwabuchi, who walks around in bright yellow boots inspecting the day's catch. "Now, we can't do any of that. We can only ship the bonito fresh."

So far, the regional government has forbid anyone from rebuilding in the tsunami zone. Iwabuchi says the reason is as simple as it is unsettling.

"The land sank," says Iwabuchi. "More and more water is coming in, and it's flooding all over."

Life After The Quake: Daily Floods

The magnitude-9 earthquake of March 11 literally reshaped Japan's northeastern coastline. Kesennuma's shoreline is now nearly 2 1/2 feet lower on average than before, local officials say. The result: The city's most valuable industrial land floods twice a day at high tide.

The effect is surreal.

At low tide, the port and downtown business district remain dry. But when the tide rises, seawater pours in from the harbor and floods streets and empty lots where buildings once stood.

The government is trying to draw up a rebuilding plan, but Iwabuchi, who has already laid off 80 of his 100 employees, says the fishing industry is losing precious time.

"The question isn't how much patience I have," he says ruefully. "It's how long my money can last."

Across from the port sit nine trawlers, some freshly painted, repaired from the tsunami and ready to go. But most haven't moved in months.

Hiroyuki Sasaki, who owns one of the boats, says that without processing factories to handle his tuna catch, there's no point in fishing.

Before the tsunami, the fishing industry here was already struggling with low prices and an aging work force. Unless Kesennuma rebuilds quickly, Sasaki worries that many fishermen will retire with no one to replace them.

"I don't even want to imagine it," he says, wearing a towel over his head in the 95-degree heat. "It's so scary. I really want young people to study and get captain's and engineering licenses."

Uncertainty Over Rebuilding

Mayor Shigeru Sugawara says the sunken coastline is the city's biggest problem, and it poses tough questions.

"First, to what height should we reclaim the land?" he says. "Secondly, how close can people live to the coast? And where to locate the factories?"

The government hopes to make a decision in the next couple of months, but Sugawara says reconstruction might take several years.

Businesspeople here say the work should already be under way.

Hiromitsu Miyagawa owned a grocery store next to the port and thrived off its activity. Like everything else here, it was wiped out by the tsunami. Now he sells bananas, pineapples and grapes from an abandoned pharmacy with blown-out walls and a collapsed ceiling.

"I think the government's approach has been really bad," says Miyagawa, who wears a grimy white apron and quotes prices for his produce over his cellphone.

"They should have focused on the city's main industry and raised the land around the port by 3 feet as quickly as possible. If that had happened, I could have put my shop in a better place."

Miyagawa's business is the only one for blocks in what used to be the city's seaside business district. Today, it remains largely a ghost town of smashed buildings and empty foundations.

Miyagawa says the delay to rebuild adds to the uncertainty surrounding Kesennuma's future. How can people start back, he says, when they don't know what's going to happen?

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DAVID GREENE, Host:

The minor damage we saw in yesterday's earthquake is worlds away from the disaster that hit Japan's northeast coast in March. We'll check in now on just one aspect of that long and difficult recovery. The region's biggest fishing ports are trying to get back to work. But as NPR's Frank Langfitt found, that earthquake and surprising aftereffects have crippled plans to rebuild.

FRANK LANGFITT: At first glance, the port of Kesennuma looks like it's making a comeback. A half-dozen fishing boats arrive one morning and unload tons of bonito, a silvery tuna-like fish.

The fish roll down a conveyor, beneath a freshwater shower, splash into plastic bins filled with ice water.

Then the bidding begins. One of the wholesalers is Mitsuo Iwabuchi. He says the port is improving, but the infrastructure that drives it, including scores of fish-processing and ice-making factories, still lies in ruins.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING)

MITSUO IWABUCHI: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: When we had factories, we used to make bonito sashimi and we'd freeze them and ship them to Thailand. Now, we can't do any of that. We can only ship the bonito fresh.

Iwabuchi's two processing plants were among those destroyed. Unable to cut up, freeze and package fish in any volume, the port can only handle one tenth of the catch it used to. And so far, the regional government won't let anyone rebuild.

Iwabuchi says the reason is as simple as it is surprising.

IWABUCHI: (Japanese language spoken)

LANGFITT: The land sank and more and more water is coming in, and it's flooding all over.

The magnitude nine earthquakes on March 11th reshaped the coast-line - literally. Kesennuma's shoreline is now, on average, nearly two and a half feet lower than before, officials say. The result: The city's most valuable industrial land floods twice a day at high tide.

(SOUNDBITE OF OCEAN WAVES)

LANGFITT: The coastline here has indeed sunk. I'm back here at the port right now and it's high tide and in fact what you just heard were the waves actually pouring in over the port. In some places it's eight or nine inches deep. When high tide comes in really strong, it can get up to your waist.

The government is trying to draw up a rebuilding plan. Iwabuchi has already laid off 80 of his 100 employees. He says the fishing industry is losing precious time.

IWABUCHI: (Japanese language spoken)

LANGFITT: The question isn't how much patience I have. It's how long my money can last.

Across from the port sit nine trawlers. Some are freshly painted, repaired from the tsunami and ready to go. But most haven't moved in months.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

LANGFITT: Hiroyuki Sasaki owns a tuna boat. He says without the port's infrastructure, there's no point in fishing. Before the tsunami, the fishing industry here was already struggling with low prices and an aging workforce. Unless Kesennuma rebuilds quickly, Sasaki worries many fishermen will retire with no one to replace them.

HIROYUKI SASAKI: (Through Translator) I don't even want to imagine it. It's so scary. I really want young people to study and get captains and engineering licenses.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN ALARM)

LANGFITT: Kesennuma marked the five-month anniversary of the disaster by sounding the tsunami alert. Mayor Shigeru Sugawara spoke at a ceremony remembering the more than 1,400 people who died here or remain missing. Afterwards, he said the sunken coastline is the city's biggest problem and poses tough questions.

SHIGERU SUGAWARA: (Through Translator) First, to what height should we reclaim the land? Secondly, how close can people live to the coast? Where they can live? Where can they not? And where do we locate the factories?

LANGFITT: How long do you think it'll take to decide that?

SUGAWARA: (Through Translator) We'll make this decision in one or two months and have them get started, but there is a lot of work to do so the construction might take several years.

LANGFITT: Business people here say the work should already be underway. Hiromitsu Miyagawa owned a grocery store next to the port, which thrived off its activity. Like everything else here, it was wiped out. Now he sells bananas, pineapples and grapes from an abandoned pharmacy with blown out walls and a collapsed ceiling.

HIROMITSU MIYAGAWA: (Japanese language spoken) I think the government's approach has been really bad. They should have focused on the city's main industry, and raised the land around the port by three feet as quickly as possible. And if that had happened, I could have put my shop in a better place.

LANGFITT: Miyagawa's business is the only one for blocks. He says the delay on rebuilding adds to the uncertainty surrounding the city's future.

How can people start back, he says, when they don't know what is going to happen.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.