SOMA, Japan — The puffer fish filling nets in Fukushima are a delicacy that can kill if wrongly prepared. But to a community devastated by a 2011 nuclear disaster, they are also a lifeline.

In the 12 years since the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant caused by a deadly tsunami in northeastern Japan, “there hasn’t been much good news”, fisherman Masahiro Ishibashi said.

The cooperative he belongs to has faced tight fishing restrictions, and consumers have avoided produce from the region over radiation concerns.

And as the plant operator prepares to release contaminated wastewater into the sea, the fishing community fears further reputational damage.

So when tiger puffer fish, an expensive variety of the notorious fugu, began to appear in their catch, they saw an opportunity.

Fugu is often served raw at high-end restaurants in Japan, where chefs must hold a license proving they can safely slice around organs that contain a lethal poison.

Each morning at Matsukawaura port, 50 kilometers north of Fukushima Daiichi, boat crews heave buckets overflowing with fat, dark-spotted tiger puffer fish into the arms of waiting family members.

For 43-year-old Ishibashi, the fish marketed as fukutora, meaning lucky tiger, lives up to its name.

“We’re catching new, attractive species, and drawing attention from consumers,” he said.

Five years ago, few tiger puffer fish were caught off Fukushima, but local authorities said warmer-than-usual water temperatures may have helped the species thrive.

However, the increased catch is mainly down to the employment of longline techniques learned from fugu fishers in southwestern Yamaguchi, which helped the region’s fisheries bring in nearly 3 metric tons of tiger puffer fish in 2019.

That figure soared tenfold last year, after official restrictions on fishing were lifted following extensive radiation testing.

But there are new worries for the community as the Fukushima Daiichi operator prepares to begin releasing treated wastewater into the sea this year.

More than 1 million tons of contaminated water is stored in tanks at the plant. The water still contains radioactive tritium, even if the government, plant officials and the International Atomic Energy Agency say it is at levels that are safe.

Neighboring countries, including South Korea and China, have repeatedly expressed alarm at the possible environmental impact, and Ishibashi fears consumers will be spooked again.

“We’re worried that the reputation of our produce could become even more tarnished,” he said.

“But the government has decided to allow the water release. We really cannot accept this. We feel so helpless.”

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