Photo: WWF Japan
I may never have met Kiyohiro Gotoh if he had not decided to have his hair cut on the afternoon of 11th March 2011. At 2.46pm on that Friday afternoon an earthquake started. The lights went out at the barbers shop. Clearly, he told me, he knew that this was a big one. Indeed it was. The earthquake was the fifth biggest ever recorded worldwide. The epicentre was on the seafloor 45 miles east of Tohuku. The shaking lasted six minutes. It was felt with full force in Shizugawa roughly 120 kilometres further north along Japan’s eastern coastline.
Earthquakes are commonplace in Japan. The nation is prepared for them. I felt one in Tokyo when I visited Japan in May this year. People in Japan can and do receive text alerts about quakes on their cell-phones. But it was what came next on that fateful Friday afternoon that was to have such repercussions and that led me, five years later to be in Miyagi Prefecture and with Mr Gotoh.
Less than an hour after the earthquake occurred, tsunami waves set off by it hit the coastline of Japan. In Shizugawa Bay the sea retreated for some considerable distance before returning in devastating form. Small tsunamis had been within local experience. But the size and duration of the March 2011 event was on an unprecedented scale. The force of the incoming waves devastated and destroyed sea-defences. The height of the waves w such that the ground floor of the Hotel Kanyo, perched on cliffs overlooking Shizugawa Bay was flooded.
This hotel was where I met Mr.Gotoh on May 18th 2016. He told me that while his journey to have his haircut in 2011 had taken a matter of minutes the return trip took eight hours. The tsunami waters went far inland. They caused havoc, destruction and were deadly.
Before the 2011 event there had been oyster production in Shizugawa Bay for well over 100 years. Mr Gotoh’s pride was clear when he told me that he was the latest of many generations of his family to be an oyster grower. The industry had been run as a series of individual family-centred farms. The areas in which oysters were grown were overcrowded, yields were poor. The rewards from oyster farming were relatively low compared to the time and effort needed to produce saleable product. The tsunami destroyed the fishery, 90% of the fishers’ boats, the harbour, the processing facilities, everything. Members of oyster farming families were killed, homes were destroyed.
But one thing that the tsunami did not destroy was the spirit and resilience of the people of the community of Togura, in Mianmi-Sanriku town in the southern part of picturesque Shizugawa Bay. After the tsunami the survivors decided that they would revive their oyster producing industry. But they would do so on a different basis. The surviving farming families joined together to form a co-operative, which became known as the Miyagi Prefecture Fisheries Co-operative, Shizugawa Branch.
The members of the fledgling cooperative held many discussions about the way in which they would resuscitate their oyster farms. They recognised that farming practices could, and must be changed and improved. WWF Japan had for some time been promoting a more sustainable approach to fish production throughout the country. They made contact with the Togura aquaculture farmers and started a project in July 2011 to support and help them recover from the effects of the tsunami. WWF encouraged the cooperative members to take the opportunity of reconstructing their fishery so that they could produce oysters responsibly.
WWF Japan introduced the Cooperative to the ideas inherent in the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) approach for the promotion of environmental sustainability and social responsibility in fish farming. They told the Shizugawa Cooperative members about the ASC’s bivalve standard. It set out clearly a measurable, science-based set of principles and criteria that, if met, would certify that the fishery was operating in a responsible way.
The cooperative decided to work with WWF Japan to adjust their management and farming practices. They decided to seek certification under the ASC programme. In this way, the members argued, they would not only help themselves, but would help to ensure that future generations would have a sustainable oyster industry legacy.
Critical to the new style of farming was agreement to reduce production densities and to try to improve the quality of the oysters grown. Now, after five years of following better farming practices, oysters take one year to reach harvestable size where before it took three years.
In March 2016 an independent assessment was undertaken to determine whether the fishery met the ASC standard for responsible bivalve production. This review was done by AMITA, a company accredited to undertake such work by Accreditation Services International (ASI). ASI is a company that the ASC uses to make judgements about the competence of companies that want to do assessment work under the ASC programme. The Shizugawa Branch of the Miyagi Prefecture Fisheries Cooperative was found to meet the ASC’s requirements. It was the first farm in Japan to do so.
And so it was that at 06.04 on the morning of May 18th I set out on the four-hour journey from Tokyo to Shizugawa by bullet train and car. Together with colleagues from WWF Japan we went north to join the celebration of the award of the first ASC certificate for responsible fish farming in Japan with the local community and oyster famers of Togura.
On a beautiful sunny, warm spring day the bay of Shizugawa could not have looked more benign and picturesque. Looking out to sea I tried, but failed miserably, to imagine what the sight looked like on that Friday afternoon not so long ago. The horror and disbelief at the scene that unfolded that day is unimaginable. To see how far the water retreated before returning with such destructive ferocity was unreal. But the damage it did was all too real.
The one thing that the tsunami did not destroy was the spirit and determination of the people of the oyster fishing community to rebuild a better life. The celebration ceremony at which I had the honour to represent the ASC showed that clearly. The pride in the distance that the cooperative had travelled in five years was obvious and well deserved. In the few words that we spoke to the assembled members of the cooperative, their families, supporters, others from the industry (customers, processors and so on), the Mayor of Mianmi-Sanriku town, the CEO of WWF Japan and I were all able to bear testimony to the strength, vision, skill and success of a very remarkable group of people.
John White, Kiyohiro Gotoh, Ryuji Tsutsui (CEO, WWF Japan)
Following the formal proceedings the Cooperative treated their guests to an oyster-based feast. Baked oysters with sake, fried oysters, oysters in soup were all devoured with much pleasure. Then we were taken to sea. Mr Gotoh did the honours and hauled up some of the crop, shucked them open on deck and within minutes after being lifted from the water, the oysters were downed by appreciative spectators. I have never, and probably will never again, eaten such a fresh oyster. It was, as I said quite involuntarily and truthfully – “perfect”.
While there was much to celebrate with the Togura fishing community, and it was a very happy day, I felt a deep sense of humility being with them. Impotence in the face of the forces of nature is something that most of us do not have to experience. But here in this tranquil part of eastern Japan life had dealt the local people a very different hand. They had seen and lived through unimaginable terror. It all happened so fast. With such power. With such unpredictability. With such enormous and far reaching consequences. And in addition they carry with them still the personal sense of loss from the fact that many people in their community did not survive.
But the renewal of a long-standing source of livelihood and employment in the area is testimony to the strength of human nature. That the ASC has been able to be a signpost and help towards a better more prosperous future for the Cooperative is a source of satisfaction and pride.
That more young people have joined the fishery as it has reinvented itself gives Mr Satoh much pleasure. He knows that there is a new future for the oyster fishers of Shizugawa Bay. He is smiling again. But he will never forget his haircut in March 2011. And I will not forget him.