Northwest seafood firms ready to help devastated Japanese port city
Northwest fishing companies, which have historic ties to the seafood industry in the devastated Japanese city of Sendai, are searching for ways to assist in the long and difficult recovery faced by their Japanese colleagues.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Pacific Northwest fishing industry has historic ties to the devastated Japanese city of Sendai, which has served as a hub for processing, storage and distribution of pollock, flatfish and other seafood products caught in the North Pacific off Alaska.
Now industry officials in Seattle are searching for ways to assist in what is certain to be a long and difficult recovery for Sendai and other coastal communities wrecked by last week's earthquake and tsunami.
"A lot of Alaskan seafood goes through Sendai," said Terry Shaff, president of Unisea, a Seattle-based company owned by Japan's Nippon Suisan. "I know that we had several containers at the port (when the tsunami hit) and others that were on the way and had to be routed to the south."
Nippon Suisan had two processing plants within a few blocks of Japan's coast and 160 employees from those plants are still unaccounted for, according to Shaff. He says that satellite photos indicate that all the buildings were destroyed by the tsunami.
Nippon Suisan has set up a disaster fund to take contributions from Unisea employees and other company subsidiaries. In the Seattle area, other Northwest seafood companies also are looking for ways to help out. "We have tried to reach out to our clients to ask them what we can to do to help them get back on their feet," said Bill Orr, president of Seattle-based Iquiqui LLC, which operates a fleet of five catcher-processors that work off Alaska. "But they are just trying to make sure families are OK and haven't been able to focus on business."
For decades, Japan has been a focal point of the international seafood industry, with a huge domestic market.
Major Japanese fishing companies once sent factory fleets to harvest off the Northwest and Alaska shores and later invested in shoreside processing plants such as Unisea's pollock operation in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
The scale of the destruction in the tsunami zone — and the radiation emitted from nuclear-power plants — has created some major new uncertainties for U.S.-based seafood companies that sell or have products processed in Japan.
"My opinion is that it's bound to have an effect on the market because even cold storage and transportation systems have been damaged," Shaff said.
Just this week, for example, the pollock industry was scheduled to hold roe auctions, where Japanese buyers would bid on the egg-filed sacs savored as a delicacy in Asian markets. But the auction were canceled because buyers couldn't get out of Japan. No new dates have been set, according to Shaff.
The stretch of coast around Sendai also is home port for fleets that fish in Japanese waters. Those fleets appear to have been heavily damaged by the tsunami. When they finally head back out to sea, these fishermen could face scrutiny to ensure that their catch has not been affected by radiation releases.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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