Fishing in Fukushima

May 30, 2013

Hirono town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan

By Issei Kato

After some tough negotiations with local fishermen cooperatives I was allowed on board a fishing boat sailing out to check fish radioactive contamination levels in waters off the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Commercial fishing has been banned near the tsunami-crippled complex since the March 11, 2011 tsunami and earthquake disaster. The only fishing that still goes on is tied to contamination research carried out by small-scale fishermen contracted by the government. The fishermen set out to sea every two weeks remembering the good old days, as they seek to reestablish their livelihoods and anxiously hope they will be able to go back to full-time fishing again.

I began thinking about the best way to take as many versatile pictures as possible in a tough environment – on a tiny boat which is slippery and keeps rocking back and forth with waves of water splashing all over the bouncing deck. I was told that the fishermen were going to use gill nets which take up quite a bit of space on the deck. This spelled out more dangers and obstacles for my equipment and I, as I knew I would have to try hard not to get caught up in the nets or trip up and fall into the sea. I was worried that had I stepped on one of the nets I would get scolded by a gruff fishermen and the whole effort would be in vein because of my own thoughtlessness.

I decided to use a remotely operated camera on a monopod to take close-up pictures of the fishing net overlooking the boat. This unusual technique also enabled me to take dynamic photos from right above the water surface as well as under water. I attached my favorite Canon EOS5D Mk3 to the top of a monopod, across a ball head platform to avoid image rotation. I covered it with plastic waterproof material and connected a remote switch with a long cable to the camera to operate it from the safety of the deck.

At first I considered using a wireless trigger system, which enables taking pictures remotely by sending a radio signal to the camera. In the end, I decided to go for a more traditional but reliable method and attached a cable to the camera because I was worried that the wireless system may not work with plenty of water around and the plastic covering over the camera. I’ve learned my lesson the hard way. I remembered a chilling experience of not being able to trigger a shutter via radio during a soccer match coverage. It was raining and the camera was wrapped in a plastic bag – I wanted to take a picture but the wireless system for some reason failed. I never found out whether that was because of the water or the protective gear, but I didn’t want to take my chances.

All in all, I think that by building on my previous experiences I managed to improve the operation of the invertible monopod. Even though I struggled to hold it on a bouncing deck, I believe I managed to create different angles and a wide variety of images to convey the mood and the atmosphere.

Fortunately, the Fukushima fishermen were neither gruff nor grumpy, but turned out to be very energetic, gentle and helpful in showing me around the area and sharing the stories of their daily struggles in the wake of the disaster.

On a personal note, I often enjoy fishing in my spare time and I’m known as a “fishing junkie” to my fishing friends. So just a quick note to them, this is not a fishing rod, it’s just a monopod!

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