Monday 5th October, 2015
It’s 1AM, and a group of fishermen prepare to go scallop farming off Koishihama Bay near Ofunato in Tohoku’s Iwate Prefecture. They spend about 3 hours at sea and return to the port by 4AM, scrubbing and cleaning the scallops, so that by 6AM the shellfish are packed up and ready to be transported across Japan for sale.
It’s been a little over four and a half years since the March 11th disaster destroyed Koishihama’s scallop farming industry, but thanks to local people’s efforts things are now up and running, as fishing boats haul in large catches of Koishihama Hotate, a scallop raised artificially in the area. The scallops, farmed where the Oyashio and Kuroshio currents meet, are known for their thick, tough texture and sweet flavour. Scallop aquaculture began in Koishihama about half a century ago.
This month I returned to Tohoku for a few days to join Sanriku Volunteer Divers in inspecting Koishihama’s underwater scallop farm. After a 5-min boat journey out into the bay, we began our descent into the cold and murky water. Visibility wasn’t the best, so we stayed close to a fixed rope as we swam to around 5m. I seemed to be descending into an area devoid of life that opened out into more and more deep blue water, although the water was clear enough to make out some rock formations below and an impressive drop away into the blue. My light cast eerie shadows over the rope, highlighting clusters of sea squirts and mussels as well as tiny feeding fish and little critters.
Just then, a row of ropes began to emerge in the distance, like a huge curtain that seemed to spread for miles and miles. Rising above a vivid backdrop of deep blue, every facet of this grand structure seemed to be covered in something. The sea was teeming with a few shoals of feeding fish as we began our journey forward. Small jellyfish slowly wafted by next to us, lighting up in our torches.
We’d arrived at Koishihama’s underwater scallop farm, each rope encrusted with healthy-looking scallops and sea squirts, with bits of kelp and seaweed swaying gently in the mild current. These filter feeders growing into the current were more impressive than other growths I’d seen before. Gliding weightlessly through the water, we spent 30mins swimming through the structure and floating next to it, using our torches to see whether the scallops were opening and closing, whether they looked healthy and whether any had died and dropped off the ropes. We were also on the lookout for debris such as nets, wires or plastic bags that had become entangled with the ropes, removing these as we went on our journey. At just over 20m, it’s all too easy to forget how you deep you are here as you become engrossed in the work. Ascending to the surface later on, my torch caught on some small sea cucumbers and scurrying shrimp-like critters as I passed by.
The tsunami on March 11th swept away the young scallops and the rafts at the farm here, and only 2 of the 40 fishing boats in the bay survived. Today, 16 of the 17 scallop-farming families in the area have resumed work, and the first scallops were shipped in September 2012. Close to the bay, the Sanriku Railway has reopened, and Koishihama Station’s waiting room contains a huge collection of scallop shells that people have hung over the years with written messages and prayers for good luck. Sanriku Volunteer Divers are also optimistic with the recent completion of a small office next to Koishihama Station, and work in progress to build a bigger dive shop and headquarters further inland. Going forward, the group is hoping to turn their volunteer work into more of an eco tourist attraction, and to create opportunities for people to learn about the natural environment of Sanriku through recovery efforts.
As for the scallops, they were definitely thriving, and tasted delicious after the dive.
- To get to Koishihama from Tokyo, take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Shinhanamaki (this journey takes about 2.5 to 3 hours, single ticket around 13,000yen). At Shinhanamaki, change to the JR Kamaishi Line and take an express to the final stop, Kamaishi (1.5 hours, single ticket 1,660yen). From there, take the Sanriku Railway Minami-Rias Line towards Sakari and get off at Koishihama Station (35 mins, single ticket 770yen).
- I stayed at the Hotel Tsubaki (http://hoteltsubaki.com) in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture. It’s a newly-refurbished Western-style establishment with baths, showers and toilets in each room, towels, hairdryers, shower gel and shampoo, a communal bath on the ground floor, and a Japanese-style breakfast all for 6,200yen a night. Dinner is also available at an extra cost. Bicycles can be hired, but the town of Ofunato is a little far on foot, so a car is recommended. Taxis can be arranged from the hotel.
- Ofunato has a range of places to eat, from Japanese-style dishes to more Western meals but with local ingredients and a Japanese feel. There are a couple of convenience stores in the town and a decent-sized supermarket.
- Contact Hiroshi Sato at Sanriku Volunteer Divers (http://sanrikuvd.org, Japanese only) or myself for further information on volunteering, and making the necessary arrangements. Pickups are also available from Shinhanamaki. The group charges 5,000yen for one fun dive, including tanks, weight belts and guide.
Dive 1: Koishihama Bay: dive number: 195, depth:18m, dive time: 32mins, entry time:14:26, exit time: 14:58, water temp: 18C, water visibility: 5m, Start pressure: 190 bar, End pressure: 50 bar, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest, 3kg weight (plate) and 1kg extra weight in pocket. Saw…scallops!