Japan's fish market reflects human tragedy, economic cost

TOKYO Tue Mar 22, 2011 7:21am EDT

TOKYO (Reuters) - The tsunami that hit Japan this month took such a huge toll on people, equipment and fish that supplies of some seafood could be cut off for a year or more, industry workers said on Tuesday.

The magnitude 9.0 quake on March 11 and the 10-meter (30-foot) tsunami it triggered are known to have killed more than 9,000 people and more than 12,000 are still missing.

But the damage to the coastline north of Tokyo has compounded the human tragedy with devastating commercial woes.

"The tsunami washed away all of east Japan's farmed scallop industry," says Toshiharu Kagami, who works at a fish wholesaler at Tokyo's Tsukiji central fish market.

"And it washed away all the people who worked there."

It is too early to quantify the impact on Tsukiji's turnover or Japan's fish exports, officials say, but the blows that wiped out lives and businesses to the north are being felt at the world's largest fish market, which handled 544,000 tonnes of seafood in 2009 worth 434 billion yen ($5.4 billion).

The tanks and styrofoam boxes that fill the small stands at the Tsukiji market in central Tokyo have no flatfish, black rockfish or abalone from the northeastern prefectures (states) of Iwate, Miyage and Fukushima, collectively known as Sanriku.

There are no Sanriku delicacies such as its famed oysters or "wakame" seaweed from Miyagi. The scallops available at the market this week come in smaller numbers from Japan's west coast.

Tsukiji wholesalers are also seeing fewer customers such as sushi chefs and restaurant buyers whose businesses have been hit by rolling power blackouts and train service suspensions to save energy.

"Customers are cutting way back. They're canceling parties," said Hiroshi Nagae, who runs a restaurant in Tokyo that seats 70.

He couldn't find flatfish so bought some mackerel instead.

"We've got planned blackouts and gasoline shortages," said another wholesaler, Haruo Shinozaki, wearing a work jacket and an orange towel around his neck.

"People just aren't buying."

RUSHING HOME

Customers at Tsukiji, on the waterfront where the Kanda River meets Tokyo Bay, have been down as much as 70 percent since the quake, according to Tsutomu Kosaka, a market official. It will take a year or more for supplies of many products to revive, he said.

On Tuesday, Tsukiji was buzzing after being closed on Sunday and Monday for a holiday, with scores of its signature three-wheeled electric carts barreling through the narrow aisles.

But business was slow, wholesalers said.

"There are fewer fish, and scallops are 20-30 percent more expensive," said Masato Yajima, 67, who has run a Tokyo sushi shop for 35 years.

"Next year, there won't be any oysters or wakame," Yajima said, wearing a cap from the USS John McCain, a U.S. navy destroyer based in Japan.

Tetsuya Saotome, who owns a handful of upscale tempura restaurants in Tokyo, complained that 90 percent of his business had dried up in the past week.

"People are rushing home at 5 (p.m.) and the trains are empty by 8," he said, blaming the blackouts for sending people home early.

But problems extend beyond supply and demand.

"Some people are asking for fish that aren't from up north, because of the nuclear plant," said Eiichi Heima, the 66-year-old owner of wholesaler Kitome Suisan, referring to the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant, where some reactors are leaking radiation.

But an official of the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations brushed off such fears.

"There are no fish coming from the regions that were hit, so no fish are contaminated," said the federation's Rika Tatsuki. "These kinds of rumors are the worst thing that could happen."

The infrastructure, electricity and nuclear crises afflicting the northeast could leave large swathes of the region's economy in a shambles, and Tsukiji fishmongers are among the first to feel it.

"The economy won't come back soon," Kagami said. "Tokyo has to make huge efforts, and people here don't realize that yet."

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

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