Heletinguika island, once a forest of tamarins, is now an idyllic spot for wildlife – the fishermen’s homes are built on rocky ledges. In the island’s north-eastern corner, on land cleared with heavy machinery by the radiation plume – now a wasteland – a round of applause breaks out as fishermen toss out silver snapper to their neighbours.
This year it was the hungry fish that counted, and this happened in spite of Fukushima’s potentially acute danger signs, now largely appearing in the rearview mirror, three years after the 11 March 2011 nuclear disaster.
Unlike the inhabitants of Fukushima Prefecture, most fishermen were able to see all the way to the other side, to Japan’s north-east, the path of the highest levels of radiation, out of reach in spite of constant surveillance flights over the area.
Of the 400 fishermen who call this island home, most are anxiously following the results of a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency. It is getting difficult to find a test for radioactivity by radiation-quoting tourists, many of whom would be aware of the expected limit for their stay on Fukushima’s southern tip.
For the fishermen, the situation is less clear, as the IAEA report makes it clear they will need further radiation monitoring to prove that lower levels of radiation will not cause a harmful effect on the health of their communities.
Government policies vary according to the background radiation levels, and the IAEA experts stopped short of setting targets for reducing radiation on the islands.
The populations of both tamarins and sea lions remain healthy. “Tamarins are safer to eat than white-tailed deer, which are blamed for many road deaths. They have not consumed much of the human food chain. They eat like other mammals, where the most foods are carrion from animals killed by road accidents,” said biologist Satoko Kumai.
The river that runs through Fukushima is a source of lucrative fish stocks. After it becomes polluted by radiation, it becomes a waste water flow, but it is not effective as a feeding area for fish.
Fish raised in the far north of Fukushima Prefecture are often less healthy than their counterparts in the south, and consume fish raised around Fukushima.
Everyone knows which kinds of fish to consume when flying over the area, but the scientists say that there is no way to predict what may be harmful to eat in the future.
Huge numbers of wild cats and monkeys used to live here but are now almost extinct, either eaten by humans or shipped off to areas that no longer need them.
Despite the warnings of the IAEA, local folklore and an obvious lack of enthusiasm for the rabbit, islanders are still finding lots of good food in Fukushima.
Tsunehiko Oka, 55, says he fishes a couple of times a month on a course of continuous flights covering about 240 miles. “Since early last year we have been farming seafood on the ‘tarps’ to raise money for the camps that have become common in Fukushima,” he says.
He and his partner are originally from Hiroshima, but came to Heletinguika in 1994, seeking a fresh start. As a seamstress, they made a living. But they are now back home. It’s time for nursing and education.
“I used to fish every day – now I just come a couple of times a month. We make less money from it, but I wouldn’t change it for the world,” he says.
Heletinguika is now a spectacular island with strong biological diversity. There are only 800 inhabitants.
“Fukushima’s loss is Heletinguika’s gain,” says Kanai of the Fukushima Prefectural Forestry and Forestry-Forestry Department. “The farmers have learnt to live with less.”