” IWAKI, Fukushima Prefecture–An aquarium’s veterinarian and a team of local volunteers are monitoring radioactive contamination of fish in waters near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant to see if the marine life is fit to be served for dinner.
The group, called “Iwaki Kaiyo Shirabetai-Umi Labo” (Iwaki marine unit and sea lab), organizes a monthly fishing excursion to check radioactive pollution of the sea near the plant.
Junichi Yagi, a 39-year-old company employee in Iwaki, and his peers began the project in autumn 2013 to log radiation figures that are independent of surveys conducted by the central government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the nuclear plant.
“I had been frustrated over my inability to counter an argument with data we took on our own that the sea we loved has been contaminated,” Yagi said of why the group embarked on the project.
A large amount of highly contaminated water leaked into the sea shortly after the nuclear catastrophe unfolded at the plant on March 11, 2011, which was triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
Local fishermen’s cooperatives resumed operations in June 2012 on a trial basis, but species that tend to accumulate higher levels of radiation are prohibited from being shipped to markets.
Leaks of radioactive water from the plant, however, have continued on and off although the pollution has not been as severe as that which took place in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear disaster.
During a trip in August, a boat left a fishing port in Iwaki to head to waters in the vicinity of the plant. It carried 21 people on board.
An hour later, the boat stopped 1.5 kilometers from the plant. From there, a red crane could be seen working on the decommissioning process there, and the No. 1 reactor was standing there stripped of its canopy.
Local residents are banned from catching fish in waters within 1.5 km from the plant in accordance with a 1966 pact concluded between TEPCO and local fishermen’s cooperatives.
Using a special container, Seiichi Tomihara, a veterinarian at the aquarium Aquamarine Fukushima in Iwaki and a member of the group who was aboard the boat, scooped sea-bed soil samples at a depth of 15 meters.
The radiation dose in the air stood at 0.014 microsieverts per hour, a figure lower than a monitoring spot used as a comparison in Tokyo.
According to Tomihara and other radiation experts, radiation levels above the sea are relatively low despite being only 1.5 km from the plant because the water effectively serves as a lid.
Airborne radioactive substances eventually fall into the sea and drop to the seabed, so radioactivity in the air above the sea is more diminished than that on land.
The boat then traveled to a spot 2 km from the plant to fish with a rod and line.
The participants caught 20 flounder, rock trout and other species, a large enough catch to conduct a meaningful radiation check.
The fish and soil samples are taken to Aquamarine Fukushima in Iwaki, where their radioactivity is measured in front of visitors to the facility as part of the monthly event.
At a session in July, Tomihara adeptly separated bones from fish meat before parents and children who were attending the session.
“Meat is where radioactive cesium accumulates the most,” he explained.
He gauged the radioactivity of a rock trout with a radiation dosimeter and then explained the results to his audience.
A rock trout is one of the species prohibited from distribution by local fishermen.
But its radiation levels were not high enough to be detected by a dosimeter used during the session.
The finding came as a surprise to some people.
“Even a fish caught in waters near the plant had such a low radiation level,” said one of the participants of the session.
But a reading of white rockfish was 58.7 becquerels per kilo, below the national standards of 100 becquerels per kilo, but in excess of the limit of 50 becquerels set by the local fishermen’s cooperatives for circulation.
Tomihara said fish born before the nuclear disaster tend to show higher levels of contamination, compared with ones born over the past few years.
The two-hour session proved to be an eye-opener for many.
“Fukushima’s image before this session was something terrifying,” said Satsuki Yanagisawa, a 38-year-old mother from Saku, Nagano Prefecture, who visited the aquarium with three other family members. “But I now know that its sea is gradually recovering. Seeing with my own eyes the contamination level of the fish checked convinced me of this.”
Local fishermen operate on a trial basis in waters outside the 20-km zone from the plant, catching 64 varieties of fish.
Fish whose radioactivity is found below the fisheries cooperative standards are sold to local shops or Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market.
According to the prefectural government, none of the fish that have been caught since April for its radiation survey showed levels above the national limit.
Twenty-nine kinds of fish are currently restricted from distribution, but the ban is expected to be lifted for them step by step.
Participants in the lab session can taste dishes cooked using the fish local fishermen bring in during the trial operations, such as deep-fried Pacific cod and pasta with blue crab cream sauce.
Many families stop by and sample a free dish.
Yagi hopes the program on fish and pollution at the aquarium will help visitors gain a better understanding of the actual situation of the sea off Fukushima Prefecture.
“We don’t mean to push the view that Fukushima products are safe,” he said. “I hope that more and more people will pay attention to the condition of waters off Fukushima through conversations such as, ‘I have tried fish caught off Iwaki” and, ‘Oh, is it safe to eat?’ ” ”