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Fisheries

Thai sushi lovers aid recovery of Fukushima's fishing fleet

Exports of fresh fish raise hopes for area hit by 2011 nuclear disaster

Flounder are bled to preserve their freshness before they are exported in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture. (Photo by Keisuke Kurotaki)

FUKUSHIMA, Japan -- Fish caught off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture has been exported to Thailand, marking a step toward recovery for the northeastern Japanese region still hurting from the 2011 earthquake and nuclear plant meltdowns.

Organizers of the shipment believe that business conditions have changed since 2018, when restaurants in Bangkok serving fish from Fukushima as part of a promotional fair were forced to stop due to protests from consumer groups.

A total of 13 kg of flounder, Japanese sea bass and Japanese red sea perch that landed in Soma on June 2 was flown to Bangkok two days later. The fish was served at a high-end sushi restaurant inside a local department store.

"We were able to ship good fish just as usual," said the president of a Soma-based seafood wholesaler that handled the shipment.

Eat, and Energize the East, a Tokyo-based group that supports the food industry in Japan's northeast, organized the shipment by working with Japanese companies with seafood distribution and sales networks in Bangkok. The hope is to gradually increase deliveries if local consumers are interested.

Waters off the coast of Fukushima are known for a wide variety of fish that are caught there, but the local fisheries industry has been hit hard by concerns over radioactive contamination from the nuclear disaster.

Back in March 2018, a fair was held in which fish from Fukushima was served at Japanese restaurants in Bangkok -- the first overseas export of fish from Fukushima following the meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power's Fukushima Daiichi plant. But the event was halted after local consumer groups and others protested on social media, expressing safety concerns.

Sashimi made from fresh fish caught in Fukushima is served at a restaurant in Bangkok.

Waiting for another opportunity, Eat, and Energize the East and others hosted a food fair featuring products from Fukushima in late 2019 at the Siam Paragon shopping mall in Bangkok. The organizers gauged consumers' reaction to fish labeled as caught in Fukushima and decided to make the latest shipment while also taking the COVID-19 situation into consideration.

"The cost is high because we are transporting by air," said Daiju Takahashi, the chief administrator at Eat, and Energize the East.

"But if overseas consumers give the products high marks, the brand image will be imported back into Japan and benefit domestic consumption, too," he said. The group aims to eventually export the seafood to such markets as Indonesia and Malaysia.

Following the nuclear disaster, fishing off the Fukushima coast resumed on a trial basis in June 2012. Although the seafood is shipped only after confirming its safety with radiation tests, the volume caught in 2020 was less than 20% of the pre-disaster level.

"We don't want people to buy the fish just to support Fukushima, but rather for the quality of the fish," the president of the seafood wholesaler said. "That will lead to true recovery."

This past April -- the month that a local fisheries cooperative planned to start gradually increasing the catch -- the Japanese government decided to release treated water from the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the sea. The water discharge is scheduled to begin in two years, worrying those in the fisheries industry.

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