by Ed Lallo/Louisiana Seafood News
As Akio Ono, president of Ono Foods Co., Ltd, attended a wedding in Tokyo, his seafood plant in Kamaishi City, about 300 miles north, was rocked on March 11, 2011 by a devastating tsunami caused by one of the most powerful earthquakes to hit Japan – lasting more than six minutes.
Ono Foods sustained major damage to its operations from the tsunami. Japan’s seafood industry suffered even more from the massive wave of water that wrecked cities, wiped out fishing villages and caused the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
Today, Ono now is part of an effort to revitalize the seafood industry and spur economic development of Kamaishi City, located in the Iwate Prefecture.
With other Japanese leaders, he’s on a mission to America to provide post-tsunami updates to U.S. agencies, and learn how similar disasters were handled on this side of the Pacific.
One stop of the week-long tour was on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain, to the offices of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.
There, they met with Ewell Smith, the board’s executive director, to hear firsthand how the state’s seafood industry has dealt with crisis after crisis in recent years – including the latest, Hurricane Isaac.
Similar Experiences, Shared Pain
“I watched the earthquake and tsunami with great interest,” Smith told Ono and other leaders through a translator. “I know the pain you are feeling.”
The Japanese delegation let out an audible gasp of disbelief as Smith went through Louisiana’s recent crises – with Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and Isaac, as well as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Mississippi River flooding.
Before Katrina, market development and product promotion were the board’s two main missions, explained Smith. Afterward, communicating about the viability of the seafood industry became paramount.
“We had over a billion dollars worth of damage to the industry, so we told our story to anyone who would listen.”
Smith pointed out that no one was prepared for Katrina. “Not the state government, not the federal government. We had over 3,000 fishing vessels washed up on land, and three of the largest fishing docks in the U.S. were completely destroyed.”
The board represents 12,000 fishermen and the state’s seafood processors of crab, crawfish, finfish, shrimp and oysters.
Takahiro Sasa, deputy manager for the Industry Promotion Department of Kiamichi City, said his country “does not have a similar type seafood board overseeing the entire industry. We have a number of smaller agencies that have very defined responsibilities.”
Handling Crisis Communications
Takeo Kikkawa, professor at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University’s Graduate School of Commerce and Management, asked Smith how the Louisiana Seafood Board dealt with crisis communications.
“Everyone heard about the flooding in New Orleans during Katrina,” replied Smith. “But, what they didn’t hear was our fishing communities were wiped off the face of the earth, much like your tsunami.”
He added: “Negative perception of seafood quality and safety has hit us hard twice. First from Katrina as the storm waters polluted with debris, petrochemicals and sewage from New Orleans were pumped back into Lake Pontchartrain. For two weeks the media followed the ‘toxic soup’ –a term coined by a Texas professor -pouring into the lake. We worked with our chefs to help fight the image. That took more than two years to overcome.”
“The second time was the four months of oil spilling into the fishing waters of the Gulf shown 24-hours a day on the internet, that negative perception has set the industry back at least three to five years.”
Katrina gave the board the hardcore and hands-on experience in understanding the importance of crisis communications and management.
“What we learned from Katrina, we applied to the oil spill,” Smith told the Japanese delegation.
“If you don’t get your own story out there first, the media is going to take whatever there is and make it much worse.” Among other communications tools, critical in getting the story out was launching the website LouisianaSeafoodNews.com, he said.
Ruri Kato, international program officer for Shibusawa Eiichi Memorial Foundation and sponsor of the cultural exchange tour, questioned Smith on “when the news site was created.”
“Immediately following the fall of the oil rig, we were ahead of the game,” Smith said. “We realized we were going to have a huge PR problem because of what happened with the ‘toxic soup’ perception during Katrina.”
Cutting Through the Clutter
He explained: “We knew traditional PR and communications efforts were ineffective or marginal at best. But when we saw the idea of the newsroom, we immediately realized it offered an opportunity to cut through the clutter. We were able to secure funding for the project right away.”
In the first four months of the newsroom, Smith and board members gave more than 3,000 interviews with media from around the world – “telling our story from our perspective.”
“That’s a lot,” commented Akiko Iwasaki, proprietor of the Houraikan Resort.
Smith said newsroom stories followed the seafood business cycle – from protecting habitats, to harvesting fish, crabs, shrimps and oysters … to processing the products and finally, marketing and selling them to markets in Louisiana, nationally and worldwide.
By creating valid news stories, “we fill the vacuum so the media does not continue to rehash the same story over and over again,” said Smith. “It allowed us to get the stories out that we needed told.
“It was an effective tool in fighting the negative seafood safety perception that sprung from the spill.”
Testing Seafood’s Safety in Japan
For the Japanese, seafood safety perception is a large problem – both in Japan and around the world. The country is one of the largest producers and consumers of seafood. More than 90% of the seafood caught by Japanese fishermen is consumed locally. In addition, the country is an importer of seafood.
The industry has had to fight the fear of nuclear contaminated seafood, both in Japan and overseas.
The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant contaminated nearby waters. A year and a half later, the first seafood caught off Japan’s Fukushima coastline since the nuclear disaster recently went on sale. Because of persisting fears about radiation, sales were limited to octopus and marine snails.
Ono Foods, which processes a wide variety of seafood for wholesale and retail markets, is particularly sensitive to their customers’ fears.
In November of last year, the company began testing for radiation in the seafood, using the EL25 food radioactivity concentration measuring device. It determines the concentration of radioactive materials in the seafood products. Ono Foods publishes all testing results.
The tests measures the amount of radiation emitted from the sample, allowing the company to deliver safe fish dishes to customers.
After meeting with Louisiana Seafood Board, Ono said: “This trip has been very beneficial to not only for my company and myself, but for the Japanese seafood industry and the economies of the region affected by the earthquake and resulting tsunami. Listening to your story has given us inspiration that we can do something more.”
“In order to reconstruct regions hit by natural disasters, it is absolutely crucial to revitalize the economy of the region. Reconstruction of East Japan is no exception.”
Asia’s Seafood Industry Learns From Louisiana Crisis Management
For the second time in less than eight days, business people and officials from Asia’s seafood industry sought out the crisis management expertise of the Louisiana Seafood Promotions and Marketing Board.
This week, seafood officials from the Peoples Republic of China met with Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Board.
They came to hear firsthand how Louisiana’s seafood industry dealt with a series of natural and manmade disasters – from Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.