"Some of our fishermen are already back out at sea. Others have new boats and are ready to go, but the government has not yet decided where the docks will go. Our guys are frustrated, but we are making progress, bit by bit."
Last week a group of us visited two fishing cooperatives in the small coastal town of Minamisanriku, Miyagi. The Shizugawa Fishing Cooperative and the Udatsu Fishing Cooperative together support nearly 1,500 members in the industry that drives the economy in these small coastal towns. Peace Winds America (PWA) and Peace Winds Japan (PWJ), with support from GlobalGiving donors, are helping these coops get back on their feet after the majority of their boats and many lives were lost.
The first order of business was to help the coops replace the facilities and office equipment lost to the tsunami. The quote above was from the director of one of the coops. We were having coffee in the coop's new headquarters, which was made up of several temporary housing units bolted together. Around us was a beehive of activity, with fishermen coming in and out, and people reviewing spreadsheets on computer screens. They were reviewing the previous day's catch, checking on market prices, and deciding where to fish the next day.
Despite a tragic number of deaths, the director had rebuilt the roster of coop members to its previous level. That was impressive given the total devastation of the town, which had few houses left. Nearly all the survivors were living in temporary housing units scattered throughout the area; many can't rebuild on their previous land, because the water level rose over a meter after the earthquake.
"What are your biggest remaining challenges?" we asked.
"Well, the big thing is where we are going to put the docks, as I said," he replied. "Until the government decides that, we can't get back up to capacity.
"And then there is the question of boats. We lost much of our fleet, and even though many of our fishermen have the funds to buy new boats, the manufacturers can't keep up with demand, and there are long delays.
"One of there things I am most worried about is the older fishermen. If we don't get them back out on the water soon, they will never go back. Many of them lost wives and other family, and they are very depressed.
"And then there is the issue of radiation. We have been testing fish intensively, and the readings are very low. But the government won't announce what the acceptable limits are, so some consumers don't trust the fish, however low the levels are. That prevents us from selling certain types of fish that people believe are more likely to be affected."
These challenges sounded daunting to me. But the director was resolute, and notwithstanding the huge tragedy he did not want to dwell on the past. His members had already re-built their revenues to two-thirds of the pre-tsunami level, and he was determined they are going to make a full recovery despite the odds. It was impossible not to be impressed and inspired and hopeful. We left the co-op and went to eat lunch at a temporary cafe. What was on the menu? Sushi made from the local catch. It was fantastic.
GlobalGiving and Peace Winds staffs