The hatchery process begins in early autumn when spawning salmon start their run up Sanriku rivers. There, the fish are met by fishermen who harvest the eggs and cultivate juvenile populations in long, narrow tanks filled by fresh-water aquifers from the nearby stream. The tiny salmon live in these tanks for approximately six months, before they get released back into the ocean waters. Four years and many hundreds of miles later, more than half of those same salmon return to where they were spawned, ready for catch.
During the 2011 fishing season, some seven months after the tsunami, the salmon returns were quite poor, likely because the tsunami altered the ocean floor so profoundly that the fish were unable to find their way back. It's likely that the following two salmon seasons will yield similarly low catch numbers in Minamisanriku, while other fishing communities in Japan will see larger-than-normal populations return.
But with new equipment — everything from tanks to vehicles to fishing nets — provided through fundraising and a generous donation by Xylem Watermark, Minamisanriku’s hatchery was back up and running in time to harvest eggs last fall, and they are expecting to release nearly five million baby salmon this spring; this will keep the four-year cycle going without a significant gap in returns in 2016.
"We didn't have anything, not even employees, after the tsunami," said Hiroto Miura, the hatchery's manager. In fact, Mr. Miura is one of the few city employees who survived the tsunami, and he’s now the lone manager of the program. "Today, we have equipment and young salmon in the tanks again. It's a small step towards the overall revival of this town.”
Perhaps even more exciting, revitalizing the hatchery has provided much-needed employment in Minamisanriku. During the last three months, as the hatchery has geared up to release the new generation of fish, a total of 480 people have been employed as fishermen, hatchery tank maintenance employees and fish processors. This number is likely to rise in the future as larger salmon populations will fill the hatchery tanks. So already, this hatchery — one of the few functioning parts of the local infrastructure — stands as a symbol of this once vibrant fishing town’s comeback.