Science, Tech & Environment

Radiation and Raw Fish in Japan

Not long after the March 11 earthquake in Japan, I heard about sushi panic. But not in Japan.

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It seemed that restaurant goers in places like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles were rushing out to eat loads of raw fish before it was too late. Many of those sushi lovers speculated that radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant would contaminate the sea, the fish and then people.

That's not an impossible scenario. But it's highly unlikely.

Still, since March 11, the sushi industry in Japan has been in disarray. But why, when that scenario is unlikely?

If you want to know anything about sushi, Narita Yoshitaka is your guy. He's the man widely credited with streamlining Japan's sushi industry, bringing hygiene, pricing and marketing standards to the business.

The 54 year-old entrepreneur runs Tsukiji Sushi-ko. It's named after Tokyo's world famous Tsukiji fish market where he sources the majority of his produce.

"It's the kitchen of Japan," Nartia-san told me.

Tsukiji is Japan's biggest fish market, which also means it's the world's biggest. In the same way Japanese buyers show up on remote docks in Maine to score highly desirable North Atlantic bluefin tuna, buyers from around the globe in search for coveted Japanese horse mackerel also shop at Tsukiji.

Horse mackerel sold in Tsukiji in the morning could be on a plate in a New York sushi bar by night.

So first stop, Tsukiji. The morning I went, it was raining, but still busy. One fish monger I met was hoarse from barking out to customers. I could barely get him to pause to make a few comments about the business, he was so busy.

It seemed odd that he was trying so hard because he seemed to have cornered his corner of the market with sushi-quality tuna. Samples of it were laid out in a glass case that looked more like a museum display than a refrigerator.

Still, his nerves about sales were understandable. When I asked him how concerned customers were about where their fish comes from now, he said, "a lot."

He explained that right after March 11, his own sales were down by about 50 percent. "Now it's only down about 30 percent," he said, and jumped right on another prospective buyer before ignoring me.

The good news is that elsewhere in the Tsukiji market; business also seemed to be picking up.

I met Saito Yoshiyaki, 60 years-old. He's been in the business for 40 years, and runs the Saito Fish Co. Yoshiyaki told me that after March 11, business was down sharply. But he said that was because of logistical problems: no gas, and roads were shut down.

But over time, he said, business came back. "My customers have faith," he said, "that the Japanese government is inspecting all the fish sold in the market to make sure it's not contaminated."

Maybe it's faith in the government. Maybe it's belief in science.

"The ocean is so huge in terms of the amount of water in the ocean," says David Brenner, director of Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research in New York, "that any radioactivity in the ocean gets enormously diluted just by the amount of water in the ocean. And so the amount that would reach one through fish is actually very small indeed. It's more an issue for the local rivers and streams near the Fukushima plant."

That radioactive water could contaminate freshwater fish. More significantly, it could also – and has – contaminated crops.

"Things like broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, mushrooms," says Brenner, "they're actually the majority of the foods in Japan that are still slightly radioactive, and again only the ones that are being grown in the northeast of Japan near Fukushima."

Still, the idea that fish from the sea might catch radiation like a cold – and pass it on to humans through sushi — is a powerful scenario that's hard to ignore. And as a result, the sushi business continues to suffer.

Narita Yoshitaka of Tsukiji Sushi-ko, the man who stays across the sushi industry possibly more than anyone in Japan, says that will take a long time for the sushi business to return to normal.

"And it's not just because fish stocks have gone down," he says. "The export side of the business has almost been paralyzed." And Yoshitaka says "people's confusion about radiation isn't changing."

It's easy to understand why radiation continues to scare people. After all, the number of cancer deaths attributed to the Chernobyl disaster range from zero to tens of thousands. And it's precisely the uncertainty of radiation's effects on humans that's most worrying for David Brenner of Columbia University.

"It's not people getting a high dose of radiation from eating a piece of highly contaminated fish," says Brenner. "It's large amounts of people getting small amounts of radiation from eating foods that are way below the regulatory levels in terms of contamination over a generation or two, that's really the long term issue that we face from Fukushima."

The reality of the situation says Brenner is that we don't really know what the long-term health consequences of that are going to be.

The immediate consequences for the Japanese fish diet, sushi especially, are also hard to analyze. Sushi is already in the crosshairs. Consumers of tuna are warned about mercury levels. And in this age of eating locally, raw and often exotic fish from far-flung parts of the world isn't the most sustainable food choice.

So, sushi experts like Narita Yoshitaka are concerned about the future of brand sushi.

Still, if you're in Japan, go to the Tsukiji fish market. Just once, see what it's like to taste barbecued eel in teriyaki sauce as close to the source as you're likely to get.

You could eat the smell from the smoke alone. But once that first unagi kebab is in your mouth, the smoothness of the flesh and the slippery quality of the eel, well, it's nothing like any eel that American sushi places typically offer.

One bite of eel from Tsukiji, and you can taste how much is at stake.