KESENNUMA, Japan — Standing on the deck of his 91-foot trawler, veteran fisherman Tomoyuki Kondou winces over reports that radioactivity from Japan's damaged nuclear power plant in nearby Fukushima has contaminated the local food supply following this month's deadly earthquake and tsunami.
The bespectacled third-generation angler has heard the warnings that milk, spinach and other vegetables grown around the plant have been found to contain traces of the radioactive isotopes iodine-131 and cesium-137.
Now Kondou and others in Kesennuma worry that radiation from the seaside nuclear plant might also affect the region's long-bustling fishing industry, which provides tuna, oysters, shark, squid and seaweed to restaurants and supermarkets throughout Japan and around the world.
Japanese officials this week said they have detected higher than normal radiation levels in samples of seawater around the power complex. Kondou is concerned that dangerous isotopes might soon infect the huge schools of tuna he reels onto his trawler, the 31 Kohei Maru.
"I worry the radiation might move up the food chain," says Kondou, 40, who was more than 300 miles from shore searching for fish when the quake struck on March 11. "At first, the smaller fish will become infected and then will get eaten by the bigger fish."
While the alarm is understandable, the science of radiation contamination suggests the health risks are less scary. Dr. Andrew Maidment, associate professor of radiology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, says radiation will be very heavily diluted in the large expanse of seawater off Japan's northeast coast, though inland fisheries such as shallow water fish farms might face a slightly higher risk of contamination.
"These radioactive materials are highly soluble and are going to dissolve," says Maidment, a consultant to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
But that may not dampen ongoing fears both here and abroad, which can impact on sales with the same force as reality.
At the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, which ships Kesennuma's catch to ports across the globe, wholesalers say that overseas orders have been slashed and prices on some fresh fish have fallen by half due to radioactivity concerns.
In recent days, the market's sushi bars, which usually are packed with tourists who wait more than two hours for service, are now half-empty.
At one export stall, exporter Yasuhiro Yamazaki had a cellphone pressed to his ear as he fielded calls from customers in the U.S., Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Indonesia. They all wanted to know the same thing: Are Japan's fish contaminated?
Said Yamazaki: "We are up against an invisible enemy."
The growing concerns could cause his company, one of the nation's largest exporters, to lose $10 million, roughly 20 percent of his annual revenues.
It's not clear how much seepage of radioactive isotopes has flowed into the sea at Fukushima through sources ranging from windblown smoke settling atop the water to possibly tens of thousands of gallons of water that has been pumped into the stricken reactors or dumped from above by helicopter. Water pumped into the reactors to cool the rods is usually protected from contamination by a zirconium casing; but casings have melted when reactors overheated, exposing any water moving past to high levels of radiation.
Some fishing industry officials here say they have been told by experts that radioactive particles that drifted out over the ocean have fallen into the water and could be absorbed into the local food chain.
As workers seek to repair the nuclear plant, the impact of radioactivity on comestibles produced here is intensifying. Officials have now urged consumers not to eat a dozen types of vegetables from Fukushima prefecture after traces of the radioactive isotopes iodine-131 and cesium-137 were found in the region. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned the import of milk, fresh fruit and vegetables from four areas near the nuclear plant.
Yesterday, government officials in Tokyo and five nearby cities announced that infants should no longer consume tap water, due to elevated levels of radioactive iodine were found at a water treatment plant.
This week's report on seawater has turned fishermen's concerns increasingly on their wares, the nation's signature export — even though the Japanese government has said they are safe to eat.
Northeast Japan, where the quake and tsunami hit, plays a vital role in Japan's $2.5 billion annual fishing industry and harbor towns such as Kesennuma are already reeling from nature's devastation.
"I wonder whether this town can survive," said Kondou, who has gone to sea since he was 15 and now fills the shiny hip boots of his father and grandfather before him. "I hope it can, but I'm not sure."
Not far from the berth where Kondou has ported his trawler, a mammoth fish processing plant and rows of adjacent fishing company offices lie in tatters, their records scattered in the wreckage. Hundreds, if not thousands, of residents remain missing.
On a recent morning, Yoko Tsurumoto rifled through the waterlogged remains of her fishing company office a block from the Kesennuma harbor. She and many of her 44 employees watched as one of the firm's four fishing trawlers burned before their eyes.
Ten days later, she was trying so salvage business records she insists are invaluable to keeping her family's 60-year-old business afloat. She pulled some folders from a blue plastic crate hauled from the office and declared, "It's all ruined."
But even as the town ponders ways to begin rebuilding its hallowed harbor, residents say they are helpless to battle fears about radioactive fish..
"Natives cherish this port and want to rebuild," said Kenzo Onodera, who owns a fish distribution company here. "But they're helpless against rumors that our fish are wracked by radiation."
Of Kesennuma's 68,000 residents, 25,000 are employed in the fishing industry, Onodera said. If people won't buy their fish, he added, the community will fall apart.
Kondou, bespectacled with a wispy mustache and goatee, dressed in a T-shirt that read "the Doomsday Distraction," says he simply wants to get back out at sea.
When the earthquake struck, he says he knew immediately that something was wrong because his boat was wracked by a series of strange successive waves.
Both he and his 12 crewmen used their cellphones to learn of the quake and its devastation. They quickly headed toward shore, passing a flotilla of floating houses, cars, trucks and dead bodies on the way.
Days later, Kondou wonders whether there will be a fishing industry left when his 5-year-old son is old enough to enter the business: "I don't know what is more dangerous to a fisherman these days — the radiation or the rumors."