If you have ever eaten a traditional Japanese meal, chances are you’ve had a taste of wakame seaweed. Harvested in early spring, it is most often served in soups and salads. Japan’s Sanriku coast is world-renowned for harvesting some of the highest quality wakame in the world, likely due to its cold, clear ocean waters, which provide the ideal habitat for the popular crop.
However, after the tsunami swept over the towns along the Sanriku coast last March, the entire wakame industry came to a screeching halt. Equipment was washed away, fishermen and processing staff lost, and the crucial income disappeared.
For people in the town of Minamisanriku and its surrounding areas in northeast Japan, wakame not only provides a source of immense pride, but also crucial jobs and a significant part of the local seafood-based economy. Wakame processing, an intricate and specialized process, is generally women’s work, while harvesting is up to the fishermen. Processing this crop requires not only skill, but also specialized expensive equipment – not easily replaced by tsunami survivors left without jobs and homes.
Recognizing the importance of this crop, Mercy Corps set out to jumpstart the stalled wakame industry in Minamisanriku. Thanks to a generous donation from Walmart, Mercy Corps provided the necessary equipment in time for the harvesting season to begin. Now, thick ropes held by giant black buoys are once again floating in the Sanriku waters and massive steel processing tubs stand at the ready along the coastline. And approximately 400 women are back to work while fisherman head out to bring in the harvest.
During the spring harvesting season, fishermen head out each morning at dawn. For the ease of production, the seaweed is actually planted into thick, white ropes that are dropped into the waters and held up by buoys. There, the weeds grow for approximately three months before they are fully grown and ready for harvest.
Two hours of pulling seaweed yields about 20 bushel-sized tubs of fresh brown seaweed. Once back on shore, the fishermen turn the seaweed over to the processors, who set up their equipment right there in port, mere feet away from the water, and spend the day following specific protocol to create a culinary delicacy. Often, they work in freezing temperatures, as they hover around the steam produced by the boiling water.
First, the thick spiral shaped “mekabu” — the tastiest part near the root — is separated from the long streaming leaf. After it’s briefly boiled, where it turns green, it’s plunged into circulating fresh seawater to cool off and then gingerly wrung out to dry and combined with a salt mixture in what looks like an industrial-sized clothes dryer. Finally, the wakame is air-dried for a few days and then packaged for sale.
The Onodara family has been harvesting and processing seaweed for decades; in fact, three generations work together on the dock. Mr. Onodara and his wife harvest wakame and bring it ashore, where his 87-year-old mother and 28-year-old daughter join in to process the crop.
The Onodaras lost “everything” in the tsunami. And they mean that literally — house, car, all possessions, jobs. While telling the family’s story, Mr. Onodara pointed out that he did manage to find his fishing boat on the side of a nearby mountain a few weeks after the tsunami hit.
In the 40 years that he has been harvesting wakame, Mr. Onodara told us, this year’s harvest is one of the best he has seen both in quality and quantity. “It is mother nature’s way of giving something back after all that had been taken in the tsunami,” he suggested philosophically.