Japan's Tohoku farmers, fishermen face uphill road to recovery

This is the third instalment of a series.

At 7 a.m. in the fish market in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, fewer than 10 brokers could be seen waiting for the start of the day's trade. The opening buzzer was heard, but they all left as no fish had been landed.

Devastated by the tsunami that followed the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the town suffered serious damage to its main industry - the fisheries business.

The Otsuchi fishing port was also severely damaged, with the ground level of its wharf having sunk due to the disaster. Repair work at the port was completed last autumn, and fishermen who lost their boats were given new ones.

However, fish catches at the market have yet to see a recovery. The number of fishermen operating in the area declined, in part because some of them lost their lives in the disaster.

But the main reason is that many fishermen who returned to the industry after the disaster now take their catch to larger ports.

"As there're only a few brokers in Otsuchi, bid prices don't rise in auctions," said a 52-year-old local fisherman. He drives for an hour to take his catch to Miyako Port in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture.

As of the end of February, the total volume of catch traded in the Otsuchi fish market in fiscal 2014 was 1,575 tons - equivalent to 40 per cent of the volume from fiscal 2010.

With poor hauls attracting fewer brokers for the auction, fish prices are declining further, creating a vicious circle.

In October, to increase fish hauls at the market, the Otsuchi municipal government began subsidizing fuel expenses for fishing boats delivering a catch worth more than 500,000 yen (S$5,698).

By the end of last year, there had been adequate restoration at 93 per cent of the ports in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures for fish to be landed, while the number of fishing boats back at sea reached 85 per cent of those in operation before the disaster.

With the recovery under way for the operation of ports and boats, next on the agenda is how to effectively make use of the facilities.

The local pelagic fisheries cooperative association in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, began a group fishing system in 2012 to reduce costs by fishing collaboratively.

Under the system, a group of boats fish jointly for shark and tuna in nearby waters. However, due to the declining price for shark meat and rising fuel costs, the association remains in the red.

The annual deficit per boat totals 30 million yen to 40 million yen. The government covers 90 per cent of the loss, but that will end in April.

To achieve further streamlining, the association has stepped up its cooperation with seafood processing firms to develop products such as shark meat nuggets.

Fisheries cooperative associations in disaster-hit areas have been grappling to find a way out of the situation, but, in reality, they have yet to fully identify a future vision and a path to their revitalisation. They are approaching a crucial stage for survival.

Across three prefectures, where a total of 20,000 hectares of agricultural land was damaged by the disaster, about 70 per cent of the farmland had been restored by the end of last year and is now ready for the next step.

Following a fall in the rice price, subsidies for farming households that agree to a policy of reducing acreage for rice cultivation have also been cut, making the environment for farmers even more severe.

Under such circumstances, making extra efforts to streamline is unavoidable.

One new strategy is to expand the usable size of farmland by combining plots on existing land.

Last spring, a branch of the farmland intermediate management organisation was established in each prefecture.

The organisation mediates in the borrowing and lending of farmland to promote and intensify land use.

Among the three prefectures, only Iwate Prefecture is expected to exceed a goal of 2,000 hectares in total to be lent in fiscal 2014.

In Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, the total land area to be lent via the organisation is expected to meet only half of the goal.