Seafood is having a bad week in East Asia, which is bad news for a region where it is a staple of the diet.
Experts say Japan’s release into the ocean of treated radioactive wastewater from the ruined Fukushima nuclear power plant, which began Thursday, did not and does not pose health risks to people who eat seafood. But even though the scientific evidence proves that, not everyone is convinced.
On Thursday, the Chinese government expanded the seafood import ban to include all of Japan instead of just a few regions. The release of the wastewater has been highly politicized and has caused severe anxiety over seafood in both China and South Korea, leaving some wondering if sushi, sashimi and other products are still safe.
At the Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul on Friday, fish sales associations put up banners urging buyers not to succumb to paranoia.
“Our seafood is safe!” a read. “Let’s consume with confidence!”
“Don’t create anxiety with unproven myths and exaggeration!” said another.
Yoo Jae-bong, 52, who tries to sell fresh halibut, croaker and sea bream at the market, the city’s largest, said there had been an influx of customers the day before the water was released.
“Then it died,” he said. “There’s a lot of fear in the air.”
The wastewater released into the Pacific Ocean on Thursday is the first tranche of more than a million tons scheduled to be released over the next 30 years. The Japanese government and the electric utility that runs the plant have promised that the water is safe for people.
International experts agree. The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog said contamination of seafood outside the immediate vicinity of the plant would be “much less any public health concern.” Independent scientists also say that Japan’s decision makes technical sense; that similar releases have occurred around the world without incident; and that the extra radiation would be small relative to what is in the ocean.
But since Japan announced its withdrawal plan two years ago, the issue has become contentious at home and abroad — particularly in South Korea, a former Japanese colony where anti-Japanese sentiment tends to rise.
In those two years, the Japanese authorities and the international scientific community failed to effectively communicate the science surrounding the release and explain why the risks to public health were so low, said Nigel Marks, a professor of physics and astronomy at Curtin University in Australia. As a result, he said, misinformation filled the void and undermined public confidence in Japan’s plans.
“Nature abhors a vacuum, and everything just poured out, and some of it stuck,” said Mr. Marks by phone on Friday.
“I’m sure they want to run it again and make it better,” he said, referring to the authorities.
Hirokazu Matsuno, a spokesman for the Japanese government, told reporters this week that it had “thoroughly tried to explain” the issue to the international community “on a scientific basis and with a high degree of transparency.”
Before Thursday’s initial release of the wastewater, several Chinese sushi brands announced that their ingredients were not from Japan or pledged to remove any of them. The Chinese government has sparked outrage in recent weeks over Japan’s plan to release treated water, and tensions between the two countries have risen further after the signing last week of a trilateral security agreement between of Japan, South Korea and the United States.
In Seoul, it is common to see protesters holding signs showing dead fish and the radiation symbol.
This week, anxiety in the region about fish and seafood, and arguments about why it’s still safe to eat, ran high.
A sign of distress emerged on Thursday when Seoul police stopped 16 college students who tried to enter the building housing the Japanese Embassy. Before they were brought in for questioning, the students unfurled banners and shouted slogans protesting the Fukushima water leak.
In another indication of concern, there is plenty of fresh fish for sale at Noryangjin Fish Market on Friday — mackerel, octopus and sea bass, all swimming in tanks — but the vast concourse was so empty of people that a reporter could easily count shoppers. Most of the fish vendors at the market, where the seafood is mainly from Korean waters, are looking at their phones or staring off into space.
In Hong Kong, a Chinese territory where the local government has banned seafood some but not all Japanese prefecture, the topic of seafood safety has become popular on social media this week.
Ivan Kwai, the manager of Kyouichi, a sushi and sashimi restaurant in Hong Kong’s Quarry Bay district, said on Friday that bookings had recently dropped by half.
“People lost faith,” said Mr. Kwai, 60, as he tapped a finger on his booking ledger. He added that he plans to replace his supply of Japanese products with Norwegian salmon, Canadian sea urchins and other imports.
As of Friday, it was unclear what effect the anti-seafood sentiment would have on Japan’s exports in the longer term. But early data is not encouraging. China’s state-run news media said this week that imports of seafood products from Japan in July fell 29 percent compared to the same month last year, a decline that Japanese news reports attributed to tests seafood coming from Japan for traces of radiation.
If negative sentiment persists, it could potentially have a major impact on Japan’s economy. Last year, the country’s seafood exports were worth 387 billion yen, or about $2.6 billion, according to official data. Sales in China and Hong Kong accounted for more than 40 percent of the total.
Not everyone in East Asia is troubled by the Fukushima wastewater release, of course.
At a branch of Umimachidon, a Japanese chain restaurant in Hong Kong famous for its sashimi rice bowl, a line formed every Friday lunchtime.
“I’m not worried” about contamination, said Edward Yeung, 30, as he stood in line with his family. “I want to eat as much as I can before the price goes up.”
Siyi Zhao and Choe Sang-Hun contributed reporting.