Boatloads of benevolence

Seafood industry still aiding Japanese peers after 2011 tsunami

ANCHORAGE —The Alaska Fishing Industry Relief Mission Inc. had good news from Japan just in time for Thanksgiving.

 

The nonprofit group raised more than $375,000 for tsunami relief efforts in 2011. This summer, Canadian Linda Ohama helped the group distribute the money to Japanese fishermen.

Ohama, who is currently in Japan, delivered the good news in a Nov. 20 email.

“Last week, I saw the two small boats that the Arahama fishermen were able to purchase with your donation! They were putting on the names: Alaska Maru 1 and Alaska Maru 2!!” Ohama wrote the group.

The Miyagi Fishermen’s Association received $5,700 for the vessels earlier in the fall, and said 23 families would benefit from the boats.

Ohama passed on thanks from the fishermen who received the boats, and said they talked about how each dollar was spent with gratitude.

The new fishing vessels are just one of 10 projects AFIRM supported.

The Alaska money has purchased various fishing supplies, storage tanks, air conditioners for a sorting plant, a forklift and truck for a market, a training simulator for a local high school, and assorted safety equipment. More than 1,000 fishermen, and even more families, have benefited.

Ohama, who helped identify the projects, has seen many of the projects successfully funded and fishermen return to the sea.

“I have (seen them come to fruition) and each of them is so wonderful to witness,” Ohama wrote in an email about her efforts in Japan. “The gratitude and the giving coming together.

But AFIRM Chair Larry Cotter said that it is Ohama to whom they’re grateful for all her help in finding an effective way to distribute aid.

“We raised close to $400,000 after the tsunami, and then the question is how’s it going to be spent in the best possible way?” Cotter said. “... When Linda came along, we knew just where to go.”

AFIRM Secretary-Treasurer Mark Vinsel said the group was connected with Ohama after putting the word out that they were looking for assistance helping fishermen impacted by the tsunami.

Ohama told the Alaskans about fishermen in Sendai who had everything they needed to get back on the water, except for lifejackets. The group provided $5,500 for the lifejackets, and the men were able to return to fishing right away.

Then, Ohama worked with them to find others in need of assistance. The group prepared a form for the Japanese to fill out, seeking information on how much money was needed, who would benefit, and where the people applying were located. Ohama took the forms with her when she went to Japan in June.

“She met with all these different fishing groups throughout the region,” Vinsel said.

Ohama said she found the projects for AFIRM to support while traveling the coastline of Tohoku.

“It is not difficult to meet the fishermen because most of the towns and harbors that were swept away were fishing and farming towns,” Ohama wrote.

Ohama also translated the forms for AFIRM, Vinsel said. She has stayed in touch with the Alaskans through Skype and email while abroad.

Ohama said her interest in helping the fishermen came from a variety of factors. She grew up in a small prairie community on family farm where everyone helped each other out, and her grandfather was a fisherman in British Columbia. Ohama is also anchored to coastal Japan through her maternal grandmother, who is from a fishing town there.

She headed to Japan this summer as part of the “Canada-Tohoku-Japan Cloth Letters” project that started in Vancouver, B.C., after the tsunami. Now, she’s also working on a documentary about the Tohoku region.

“Sometimes life just puts you in a position where two things are before you that could be connected ... so maybe I am just a connector,” Ohama wrote in an email. “Others have also called me a ‘Watari Dori’, a bird of passage that bridges two places.”

The Alaskan side of the connection Ohama helped create involved a wide swath of the fishing industry, Cotter and Vinsel said.

Fishermen, processors, and entire industry came together on the fundraising effort.

“The response was phenomenal,” Vinsel said.

In the Bering Sea crab and groundfish fisheries, most vessels donated $5,000 to $10,000, with Unisea, owned by Nippon Suisan of Japan, matching those efforts. Other processors, including American Seafoods and Glacier Seafoods also matched fishermen’s efforts.

Vinsel said the strong industry response was indicative of the fishermen’s mentality. They compete at sea, but will drop everything to help one another out when necessary, Vinsel said.

AFIRM was founded in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina to support fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. The group supplied fishermen with a lift to get boats back in the water near Plaquemines Parish, La., icemaking equipment for fishermen near Biloxi, La., and other aid.

After relief efforts for the hurricane wound down, the group knew it might be needed again.

“We didn’t close the organization down,” Cotter said.

They opted to maintain a minimal bank account so work could ramp up when needed.

“We do think it’s important for the Alaska fishing community to be prepared to help others,” Vinsel said.

Vinsel said the thanks the fishermen have sent Alaskans are very powerful.

A sign the lifejacket recipients held said something along the lines of, “We will succeed with feeling of thanks as power,” Vinsel said. “It’s very poignant that they feel such strong thanks.”

Vinsel said they’re still hearing the results of AFIRM’s contributions in Japan. Most of the money has been sent to the selected groups, and reports of the fishermen returning to sea are rippling back to AFIRM.

“They’ve received the help,” Vinsel said.

One project is still pending.

Cotter said AFIRM has designated $30,000 for rebuilding the Iwaki Fish Market. The group is waiting to for the Iwaki Fishermen’s Organization, Hisanohama Branch, to raise the rest of the funds for that project.

 

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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