Over the last 50 years the Vancouver Aquarium has developed enduring international ties with some of Japan’s greatest aquariums. Building upon a foundation of common fascination for our aquatic world our relationships have grown from formal agreements to strong friendships. Our geographical position on the Pacific coast has allowed us to travel back and forth frequently, sharing our expertise and discoveries on everything from jellies to coelacanths, and exhibit technology to conservation programming.

The Vancouver Aquarium was devastated by the news of the earthquake and tsunami caused such terrible destruction in Japan. It is our understanding that all visitors and staff at the various aquariums during the event survived the ordeal and fortunately most of the large aquariums in Japan were shaken but not severely damaged. However this was not the case for all of them. The Fukushima Aquarium, with whom we have a very close working relationship sharing both programs and strategy, was hit directly by the tsunami causing damage and total failure of its life support systems. A few surviving animals were transferred to other facilities but many perished. Compounding the recovery has been the loss of fresh water and electricity supplies and the spectre of radiation contamination as the nuclear power plants are just 55 km away and suffering failure.

To help provide some support to our impacted colleagues at Fukushima, the Aquarium dedicated $1 from every general admission from March 18 to 25, 2011. During this period we were able to raise $18,295.   To provide moral support, and to see the extent of the damage and recovery progress to date, staff from the Vancouver Aquarium – Clint Wright, SVP& GM and Takuji Oyama, Senior aquarist – took a day trip to the Fukushima Aquarium last weekend to meet with the director Yoshitake Abe.  Following is a short account of their observations.

The train system to Onahama from Tokyo has been recently restored and is now fairly reliable, although a little slower. On the ride through the Japanese countryside it was hard to imagine that this country had suffered the world’s biggest earthquake.  In the early spring sunshine with the people out working their land plots in the lush rolling countryside everything looked just as it had on our previous trips.

Arriving in the quiet port town of Onahama after our five-and-a-half-hour journey from the hotel, we were greeted by one of the long-term staff of the aquarium. He picked us up in a rental car and told us that the Aquarium vehicles, and all the employees’ cars, had been washed away by the tsunami. Laughing, he said that most had been found scattered around the town in various states of demise—upside down, in trees and buildings, generally pummeled and adrift.

As we drove from the train station everything still looked remarkably normal – neat little streets, carefully manicured trees, immaculate compact little cars parked in the driveways of well maintained houses with their traditional tiled roofs glinting in the sun. People were out tending their plants, shopping and walking the streets. The apparent return to normal life was in full swing.

The first signs of damage became evident a few minutes later as the power poles and street signs leaned precariously this way and that. Turning a corner past a large coal yard, we were on a road that had been washed out by the tsunami—pot holed and bumpy with huge puddles, a result of heavy rains and afternoon storms in the previous few days.  Concrete walls lay broken and scattered and we were still a kilometer from the ocean. The tsunami had pushed all before it and the first real sign of the carrying power of the wave was a rusting, shallow, metal barge that lay beside the road now far from the water.  A continuous winding ribbon of water damaged furniture and personal belongings, piled head-height, lined the coastal road, a temporary marker of people’s daily lives turned upside down.  The town, roads and fishing dock had been mostly cleared of the debris through a significant coordinated effort, however the surge power and height of the tsunami had left large fishing vessels high and dry upon the concrete docks –and several completely or partially sunk.

The Aquarium is located on the ocean front at the southern edge of the fishing port and built on reclaimed land.  Sand had been swept into several piles around the parking lot, the tell-tale signs of liquefaction and a result of the land pushing up through the pavers during the earthquake. A long crack from the earthquake had also divided the lawn. At first glance, the Aquarium looked good, still standing with only five of the 5,000 laminated glass panels that make up its shell still in place but shattered.

Director Yoshitake Abe and a handful of his curators warmly greeted us as we pulled into the loading dock area at the back of the Aquarium, stacked high with nets, boxes and other sundry supplies.

Arriving at mid-day, we immediately headed out for lunch to one of Director Abe’s favourite sushi spots.  He explained that because of the leak of contaminated water into the ocean from the nuclear plants all local fisheries have been closed.  Seafood was being brought in from Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market, and also directly from the Sea of Japan.  Sitting at the bar, Abe-san carefully unfolded the paper from his chopsticks and proceeded to draw an outline of Japan and to explain the nature of the tectonic plates, how the earthquake had developed and how the water pattern of the tsunami had moved through the local area.  The earthquake and tsunami had knocked out electricity and the freshwater supply and, although now are both available, the Aquarium still has no functioning sewer line.

After lunch, we returned to the Aquarium and headed down the dark, damp concrete passages to his small office.  The light was on in his office that is lined with book cases and the memorabilia of decades of expeditions and collaborations around the world—flags, fish paintings, announcements, declarations and fishing poles adorn the walls.  As electricity had only recently been restored, the carpet tiles were still damp to the touch despite the best efforts of a small rusty heater and fan.  Several journalists from the print news media filed in to learn of our visit, our relationship with Abe-san, the efforts of aquariums around the world to support the disaster relief effort and the Vancouver Aquarium’s donation of 1.7 m Yen (about $20,000 Canadian) to the Fukushima Aquarium to help initiate the restoration effort. They were happy to be reporting on good news, and pleased to know that the world’s aquarium community is supportive.

Despite the return of power to the region the Aquarium was largely in darkness and eerily quiet.  We followed the faint glow of a small keychain LED and were marched up the powerless escalator toward the light of the upper floors and top of the Aquarium.  At this level, the plants were lush and vibrant under the giant conservatory glass and flourishing in the spring sunshine—a deceptive introduction to the morbidity that was to follow.  Following the descending path past the first few open topped fresh water tanks filled with algae we saw the odd resilient species hanging on: a few small fish and a couple of freshwater turtles. These very few survivors were quickly replaced with larger and larger lifeless exhibits, devoid of the life within that sparkled so brilliantly just a short seven weeks prior. The surface of the larger exhibits were crusted over with pungent green algae and perforated with the bloated bodies of unrecognizable dead fish. The marine mammal and sea bird exhibits were thankfully empty of both water and animals as they were safely rescued shortly after the earthquake and transferred to other facilities including Kamogawa Sea World, Ueno Zoo, Tokyo Sea Life Park, Mito Sea Paradise and the New Enoshima Aquarium.

Not all exhibits fared well though. At the time of the earthquake, a member of the animal care team was collecting a water sample and the ground shook so violently that it buckled the walkways and he was unable to stand.  As the shaking continued, a chasm suddenly opened up along one side of the bay ripping the liner from the foundations and dropping the base approximately 2 m.  All of the water from the bay roared through the chasm into the foundation pier space below the Aquarium carrying with it thousands of fish.  Most of the water and the now dead fish are still there and it is these fish that died under the foundations that are causing part of the stench within the Aquarium itself.
Although the Fukushima Aquarium was directly impacted, the overall structure is in relatively good shape.  What seems daunting is the immense task that lies ahead, including the renovations needed to bring the facility back to its former state. This will be no minor task and seems overwhelming – cleaning and draining all the habitats, removing the decomposing aquatic life, cleaning and repairing the life support systems, repairing the sewer lines, testing and repairing the seawater intake lines, restoring the grounds, rebuilding the animal collection, etc.  It would be easy and understandable to feel defeated and resigned to an impossibly large task. Director Abe and his small team choose to be optimistic as he plans to re-open for the summer. He is empowered with the vision of the Aquarium once-more ringing with the delighted voices of children and families exploring and learning. The Aquarium is an important community focal point and one that needs to be re-built as part of the healing process.


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