A fisheries staffer lines up blue marlin fish on the earthquake-damaged floor of the fish market at Shiogama city, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan on 28 May, 2011. The market, which reopened for business in early May 2011 is located in one of the prefectures whose seafood is currently banned by South Korea. Photographer: Rob Gilhooly
South Korea says it will maintain its 7-year restrictions on seafood imports from Japan as it prepares to appeal against the World Trade Organisation’s ruling vetoing bans on Japanese fisheries products that were introduced following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
That ruling was made after a WTO dispute panel ruled that the restrictions, while justified in the wake of the disaster, violated the WTO’s sanitary and phytosanitary agreement if continued.
The nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant was triggered by a massive tsunami, which caused a total blackout at the plant and led to explosions and meltdowns at three of the 6 reactors there. Radioactive contamination forced the evacuation of some 160,000 residents living near the facility and in the months that followed millions of tons of contaminated water is know to have leaked into the Pacific Ocean. Traces of that contamination have been detected as far away as the West coast of the United States.
However, Japan has long claimed — with support from the International Atomic Energy Agency — that the levels of contamination are now safe and in 2015 filed an objection with the WTO regarding South Korea’s continued import bans. Those bans were introduced due to concerns of the radioactive continuation on certain fish caught in Japanese waters near the Fukushima plant.
Japan also complained about the additional testing and certification requirements that had been placed by South Korea on Japanese fish caught from eight prefectures near Fukushima.
The ruling notwithstanding, Seoul is still allowed to keep its bans in place while it appeals the decision and raw WTO makes a final ruling, which reportedly could take more than a year.
Interestingly, while South Korea has banned 50 types of seafood caught in the waters near the plant, it states it has continued to import fish from Japan since 2011 — to the tune of almost three-quarters of a million tons. Of that total, only around 0.03 percent was returned for additional radiation tests.
What’s more, 24 other nations still have some import limitations on Japanese seafood products, according to news reports.
Seoul’s stance, taken it says to protect Korean consumers from potential ill effects of contaminated seafood, is seen as week and uninformed as it has undertaken just seven sampling of Japanese seafood to date and has failed to produce any reports relating to the issue over the past seven years. Additionally, a committee of civilian radioactivity experts has brought to ceased operations monitoring Japanese seafood. “In a word, the authorities were ill-prepared for the dispute,” (over the WTO ruling), says an editorial in the Korea Times.
“Now, related government ministries and agencies should waste no efforts to collect scientific and objective data to prove the harmful effects,” the KT editorial continues. “They also need to address Japan’s refusal to cooperate in probing seawater contamination near the disaster-hit area.”
South Korea should also seek backing from the other 24 countries that took similar measures in the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe, among then U.S., Russia and Argentina, it states.
Either way, Seoul is adamant it will maintain its ban. According to a Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy statement, the government will appeal the ruling “to safeguard public health and safety” and “Regardless of the decision, the current import ban will be put in place until the WTO’s dispute settlement procedure ends.”
Japan’s minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Ken Saito said at a news conference that Japan will “call on South Korea to sincerely and promptly correct their measures”.