January 30, 2009

Japan major fish market's relocation raises toxic concerns


Tokyo's Tsukiji, dubbed "the fish market at the centre of the world" for its influence on the global seafood trade, is being forced to move to a site laced with benzene and cancer-causing chemicals.


Tokyo's Metropolitan Government is pushing ahead with plans to relocate the world's largest fish market to reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay in 2014.


The move, a pet project of Governor Shintaro Ishihara, will be financed by selling the existing site, two blocks from Japan's most expensive land in the Ginza shopping district and worth at least 58.6 billion yen.


Tenants of the market including Haruo Yamazaki formed a group to oppose the move, saying food won't be safe at the new site, once occupied by Tokyo Gas Co., after arsenic, benzene and petrochemicals were found in the soil which the government promised to spend US$649 million to clean up the waste.


Food supply is a charged political issue in Japan, where the government is trying to boost the country's self-sufficiency to 45 percent by 2015 from 40 percent - lowest among developed countries - partly to protect rural areas from economic decline.


Concern over food was exacerbated by a series of scandals involving contaminated imports last year.


Official working on the project, Hiroshi Mochizuki said the government is still working out the details of the clean-up. Local media reported that toxins are lower than the top 2 metres of soil surveyed by the government.


Ishihara said opponents are using safety issues to obstruct efficient land use and the government's 58.6 billion yen clean-up budget is lower than an initial estimate of 100 billion yen because it will use new technology.


Tokyo's government also said installing conveyor belts and electronic tagging will improve hygiene at the new market.


The plan comes as Japan's role in the global fish trade is shrinking because of rising consumption in EU, the US and China, and as Japanese eat more meat.


Government data showed that Tokyo's Central Wholesale Market, which oversees Tsukiji, handled 622,207 tonnes of fish in 2007, the latest full-year figure, compared with 692,263 tonnes in 2002.


Some argue the changing dynamics of the global fish industry, in which catches reach markets by air, make the move logical.


Tsukiji's new site is linked by major roads to Tokyo's highway system and will cut journey times to Narita and Haneda airports.


US$1 = JPY89.5 (Jan 30)