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Re-opening Ofunato's fish market

Japan, July 17, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mao Sato/Peace Winds  </span>
    Mercy Corps' Malka Older (second from left) stands with the Peace Winds team, local officials and Ofunato fish market staff as they commemorate the market's re-opening. Photo: Mao Sato/Peace Winds
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mao Sato/Peace Winds  </span>
    As a trawler docks, market workers set up a conveyor belt that helps unload fish from the ship into waiting containers. Plenty of customers — mostly local — were eager to buy the fishermen's bounty. Photo: Mao Sato/Peace Winds

The tsunami poured through the Ofunato fish market, leaving the open-plan structure mostly intact but washing away almost everything within it. The narrow corridor of offices overlooking the selling space of the market shows plenty of evidence that the wave flooded up to the top of that high second floor: panels fallen or straggling off of the ceiling, empty shelves where wooden shrines used to be, an extremely grimy and unsalvageable photocopy machine.

On the floor below, though, the market is full of activity and trade. Mercy Corps and Peace Winds Japan helped revive the fish market by replacing the basic equipment needed to off-load and sell fish – plastic tanks, weighing scales, small forklifts, an electricity generator – as well as some of the basics for running a business, like the photocopy machine. Now one of the highest-volume ports in northeast Japan is again able to receive the catch from trawlers and fishing boats, and local fish sellers are able to get back into business as well.

On the morning that I visit for the handover ceremony of the last tranche of equipment, a small fishing vessel pulls up and ties in next to the market. The fish market workers rush to set up a conveyor belt, and a net lifts the first struggling mass of catch from the belly of the boat up to the receiving container. A steady stream of light brown, forearm-length squid starts to roll along the conveyor belt, while two rows of gloved hands pick through it to remove different varieties and toss them into waiting containers. When the slippery pile of squid almost fills the big plastic tank, a forklift shoves a new, empty tank into place, and then carries the old one for sorting and processing.

In another part of the market, containers of fish that came in even earlier in the morning than we managed to show up are being auctioned off. The type of fish and weight are marked on each small container, and the auctioneer calls off numbers and prices to the crowd of fishmongers huddled around him, ringing the bell he holds after each sale while another employee notes down names on a clipboard.

Most of the buyers this time are locals, stocking up small fish shops, sashimi restaurants or local markets. Most of them, like the employees of the fish market itself, have not been able to work since the tsunami hit, and there is a festive air all morning. I imagine that their customers will also be happy to be able to buy fresh fish again; when we talked to people who had been in evacuation centers, or even living in their own homes in the months after the disaster, many in this fishing town said it was one of the things they craved most.