- - Monday, September 5, 2011

OFUNATO, Japan — As she drives a forklift, Shoko Tada - one of the few women working among the blood and guts of the local fish market - has a smile on her face.

Six months after a tsunami and nuclear disaster wiped out the fishing industry in northeastern Japan and scared domestic and foreign consumers away from Japanese seafood, Ofunato’s fish market is bustling again with fishermen offloading their catch and buyers hollering out bids.

“I’m happy to have a job again,” said Mrs. Tada, 52, working among scavenging birds and about 300 sweaty men unloading nets or stabbing fish with ice picks.

“It’s great to see that so many of my friends and colleagues survived the disasters.”

Ofunato’s fish market was under 50 feet of water on March 11, the day the tsunami struck. Now it is thriving - partly because of the tsunami and the restoration efforts of hundreds of workers and partly by volunteers who reopened the devastated port in May.

Kazushi Nagazawa, a port official, said fishing vessels from the northern island of Hokkaido are rushing to fill the void created by the tsunami’s destruction of about 80 percent of Ofunato’s own fleet, especially smaller craft.

Fishing trawlers sail as far as the Russian Far East to catch sanma, a Pacific fish much loved in Japan during autumn for its taste and shiny, knifelike appearance.

Instead of selling it cheap in Hokkaido, fishermen bring it to Ofunato, where renewed demand - and a reduced number of suppliers - nets them a higher price.

“It’s a great opportunity for them to make a better profit off their catch,” said Mr. Nagazawa, 59. “When they sell it here, it’s 20 to 30 percent more expensive than in Hokkaido.”

By using the restored section of the Ofunato port, the Hokkaido merchants also save about half of their fuel and transportation costs. Ofunato in Iwate prefecture is much closer than Hokkaido to the huge markets of Sendai, Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.

Mr. Nagazawa said Japanese consumers, who normally consider seafood as a staple of their diet, are desperate to eat fish again, after several months of avoiding fish because of fears that the leaking Fukushima nuclear reactors tinted seafood with radiation.

“People from Tokyo are no longer paranoid about radioactivity tainting the fish they love to consume,” said Mr. Nagazawa, a fit man who used to cycle across Japan in his spare time.

He pointed to documents, taped on a wall near a list of fish prices. They show the results of government radiation checks five days earlier that found radiation levels safely below the legal limit.

“These sanma come from far away from the Fukushima nuclear disaster area, so people are especially eager to consume them this season,” he said.

The Ofunato fish market is also providing badly needed jobs for fishing industry workers from the nearby Rikuzen-Takata, where 50-foot-high sea surges obliterated the town.

Mr. Nagazawa said about 10 percent of the 300 or 400 people who work in the fish market are from Rikuzen-Takata.

“The local people in Ofunato welcomed them, in order to help them recover,” he said.

Azuma Higashi, a sprightly 62-year old fishing boat captain, flexed his muscles like a bodybuilder when he talked about the resilience of fishermen.

“We are no longer afraid of the ocean, and we are eager to bring fish to the consumers of Japan and the world,” he said, dressed in a white uniform and traditional headband. “Fishermen are hardy folk. We never give up.”

Like Mr. Higashi and Mrs. Tada, Mr. Nagazawa said that many fishermen escaped from the tsunami in time because they instinctively knew about the overwhelming force of the sea, whereas many residents with land-based jobs did not, and died in their homes or cars as a result.

“Most of the victims were sure there was not going to be such big wave, so they did not try to escape. But people who work with the ocean knew exactly what was going to happen. So the percentage of fishermen who died was relatively low.”

Though the tsunami spun his boat around in a whirlpool, Mr. Higashi said it survived because of his prayers to the sea gods and his respect for the power of nature.

“I knew the tsunami would destroy many boats left in the port, so I drove out to sea as soon as I felt the earthquake,” he said.

“I normally pray a lot for good health and safety. That’s why I believe that God is protecting me and my ship.”

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