The giant wave that devastated the northeast coast of Japan earlier this month, destroyed the country's coastal fishing industry. Survivors must face the question of how to rebuild what washed away.
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We are also following the aftermath of the disaster in Japan. It is an environmental story but also a huge economic story. Many industries are trying to recover from the triple devastation of an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear disaster. And one of them is fishing.
The giant wave that hit northeastern Japan destroyed its coastal fishing industry. As NPRs John Ydstie reports, the survivors are trying to decide how to rebuild what washed away.
JOHN YDSTIE: The damage to fishing stretches along Japans coast from the northern island of Hokkaido to Ibaraki Prefecture just north of Tokyo. And its affects are being felt at Tokyos giant Tsukiji Fish Market.
Standing next to a shellfish stand, Mr. Kaoru, a wholesaler, says he doesnt expect to see some products from the north for years.
Mr. KAORU (Wholesaler): (Through Translator) It will take at least three years to recovery because these shellfish need 3 years to grow to this size.
YDSTIE: Shellfish beds in the north were destroyed along with aqua-culture and seafood processing plants, says Masayuki Komatsu. For years, Komatsu was the top international negotiator for Japans fisheries. His own hometown was swept away along with other fishing villages and boats on the northeast coast.
Professor MASAYUKI KOMATSU (Leadership and Negotiations Policy, Ocean and Marine Resource): I understand the entire fishing vessels, which serve for the coastal fishing, mostly was lost.
YDSTIE: Thats around 6,000 fishing boats in all. The five major fishing ports were destroyed, as well. Komatsu estimates about 10 percent of Japans entire fishery was lost. Now the question is how to rebuild. Its not clear if the survivors, whose livelihoods were wiped out, will want to start over.
Takanori Niinuma, whos family ran a seafood processing plant that was destroyed in Kamaishi, told NPR's Rob Gifford it may be the end.
Mr. TAKANORI NIINUMA: (Through Translator) My family has been running this processing company for more than a hundred years. I'm the fifth generation. But I think it might end with me. We were already struggling before the tsunami, and I think this will probably be the end.
YDSTIE: Professor Tatsuo Hatta, president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, says Japan should aim to rebuild a northern fishery thats better than the one that was destroyed.
Professor TATSUO HATTA (President, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies): Very inefficient fishery was conducted by the old fishermen and all the ships are gone. So I think that style of fishery will change drastically.
YDSTIE: Hatta says on average the fishermen who were wiped out were quite old and may not want to start all over again. There were few young people involved in fishing, says Masayuki Komatsu, because it was hard to catch enough fish to make a decent living.
Professor KOMATSU: The youngster who lives there, do not want to stay there. So perhaps we give more kind of career picture for those who want to strive for the future.
YDSTIE: Komatsu says making the industry more attractive for young people requires a change in Japans Fisheries Act. Its a 60-year-old law put in place after World War II during the U.S. occupation. The Americans pushed through a system that was aimed at helping to democratize Japan. But it led to tight control of the fishery at the local cooperative level, which blocked entry into the industry by outsiders. And fishing licenses were largely handed down within families.
Professor KOMATSU: Once you are born in the family of the fisherman, you naturally have a fishery licenses. But a more modern law would be: We must transfer fishing grant from one generation to another.
YDSTIE: But not necessarily within a family. Instead, Komatsu says, a new law should make it possible for any young person or outsider to compete for a license. With those changes and other adjustments to prevent overfishing, Komatsu says, Japan could create a more dynamic and modern fishery than the one that was swept away. One postscript: Masayuki Komatsu says the village on the northeast coast where he was born was virtually wiped away, but most of the residents survived.
Professor KOMATSU: Luckily enough, according to my friends, there is almost none human life causalities.
YDSTIE: Komatsu attributes that luck to the stories handed down in his village about tsunamis that struck in 1896 and 1933.
Professor KOMATSU: I clearly remember my grandmother keep telling about those two preceding earthquakes, so that we have to run away immediately to the top of the, you know, a high place.
YDSTIE: But for thousands upon thousands of other people in the region, the old stories were not enough to save them.
John Ydstie, NPR News, Tokyo.
INSKEEP: John is part of a team of NPR reporters bringing you the latest from Japan on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.