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Tsunami town's fishermen vow to 'bring joy back'

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Fishermen tend to be an optimistic lot, always hopeful that the next cast or haul of the net will yield a big payoff.

Nowhere is that more evident than among the fishermen of Minamisanriku, which lost nearly 85 percent of its fleet, its port, fish market and processing plants to the March 11 tsunami that decimated many fishing communities along Japan’s northeastern coast.

Despite the blow, Minamisanriku’s fishermen plan to return to the sea next month for the first time since the disaster in search of octopi. They’ll also reopen a makeshift market where the old one stood so they can sell whatever they catch.

With the fishing industry in ruins after Japan's tsunami, third-generation Minamisanriku fisherman Takumi Oyama is using his boat to collect debris from the ocean.

Most residents of this scenic coastal community nestled amid hillside forests work in fishing, and the head of the industry association says it’s key to saving their town.

“This is a fishing town, so even though there are many issues and problems to be solved, once the fishing starts that will be a driving force to encourage people and to bring joy back to this town," said Norio Sasaki, 63, chairman of the Miyagi Fisheries cooperative, Shizugawa branch. "And once the processing companies also start, that’s going to create jobs and ... that’s going to make this town vibrant again.”

Sasaki acknowledges that his vision of a revitalized Minamisanriku is likely years in the future.

The March 11 quake and tsunami destroyed some 60 percent of the town’s homes. About 900 people are dead or missing, including up to 60 fishermen who lived inland and didn’t think the tsunami would go that far, he said. Some 4,700 survivors, including fishermen, are living in shelters.

The town’s fishermen catch salmon, oysters, octopus and harvest wakame seaweed. Together, they land the second-biggest catch in Miyagi prefecture, trailing only Onagawa to the south. The industry, including processing plants, generates about $49.5 million a year.

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

A fisherman cuts floats off ropes and nets that were damaged by the March 11 tsunami.

But of the 1,000 boats registered with the fishing association before the tsunami, only 56 survived intact. Another 100 were recovered, but in need of repairs.

But Sasaki said that he has heard from about 340 fishermen, or 80 percent of the association’s full-time membership before the tsunami, who are telling him, “We want to do fishing again, we want to go to the sea again.” That gives him hope that the fleet will grow to 500 to 600 boats by the end of 2011.

For the time being, Minamisanriku fishermen with seaworthy boats are collecting floating wreckage from the tsunami: large floats for nets, trees, rope for fish farming, parts of boats and other debris that appears to be from homes. They make between $100 and $150 a day doing this, though that doesn’t come close to replacing their usual income of between $86,000 and $124,000 a year. Japan’s fishing ministry is boosting cleanup wages, since fishermen don’t get unemployment insurance.

Another barrier to getting back into business is the lack of a port.

“There’s no port to put all of the boats in and because the land has sunk, when the high tide comes in, all the boats will come into town,” Sasaki said, adding that 11 boats were delivered on Thursday morning, but the fishermen had to park them on a mountainside. For now, most of the debris-collecting boats are operating from a single dock.

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

Fishing floats are piled high next to Hadenya port in Minamisanriku, Japan. Shizugawa Bay is in the background.

The fishermen also are concerned that the sluice gates leading to the Niida River,which were closed before the tsunami and now are jammed shut, could impact the salmon catch the town is famous for.

Because town officials and the fishing association have “mountains of things to do” and are starting from “minus" zero, Sasaki said it may take five years for the town’s fishing industry to completely rebound.

Fifty-seven-year-old Takumi Oyama, who took a crew out on Friday morning to collect debris from the sea, said he was about to give up on fishing until officials found one of his five boats after the tsunami, But he said he remains anxious because his livelihood has been so disrupted.

"I want to start fishing again once we're done cleaning," he said, noting he was living off savings and insurance. "The  volume is expected to shrink, but that's our agenda for the time being."

Masayuki Miura, 20, joined the crew on Oyama's boat after his family’s four fishing boats were washed away by the tsunami. He said his father was doing the same on another boat.

"It's very severe and I'm sure my father is feeling the same way, too," said Miura, a third-generation fisherman who lives in an evacuation shelter. But he remains positive. "I want to continue fishing and I'm sure I'll be able to do it again."

Sasaki said such faith in the future is common among his members:

“We were once betrayed by the tsunami, but considering how they make a living, there’s nothing else but the ocean.”