Russian fishing ships seen off Fukushima reflects Moscow’s ‘hypocrisy’ over Japanese seafood ban

Russian trawlers have been detected operating just a few kilometres off the coast from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant in northeast Japan, underlining the “hypocrisy” of Moscow’s ban on seafood imports from Japan, according to analysts.

They said that Russian fishermen catching fish off Fukushima to sell to their country’s consumers suggest that either the vessel operators know that treated water discharged from the nuclear plant does not pose a danger, or they just do not care about Moscow’s claim of food safety issues over fish caught in the area.

The analysts also said Russian ships operating so close to the Japanese coast is a calculated “signal” to the Japanese government and another attempt to pressure Tokyo to withdraw its support for sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine.

The Sankei newspaper reported on Wednesday that at least three Russian trawlers had been tracked operating off northeast Japan on January 14, getting within 32km from the Fukushima nuclear plant, which was damaged by the magnitude 9.1 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.

The Japan coastguard has deployed unmanned aerial vehicles to shadow the ships and shared the data with the Japanese Fisheries Agency.

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The ships did not enter Japanese territorial waters, which extend 22km from the coast at the low-water mark, and were operating legitimately within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, which extends out 200 nautical miles (370.4km) from the coast.

Tokyo and Moscow signed an agreement on reciprocal access to fishing resources in each other’s EEZs in December 2022, with the agreement coming into effect in November last year.

While the ships were legally hauling in fish, Russia is displaying double standards, according to analysts, given that it announced in October restrictions on imports of fish and seafood products from Japan as a “precautionary measure” after Japan started releasing treated water from the plant into the Pacific.

The Japanese government has criticised Moscow’s decision, saying it had “no scientific basis, is unjust and regrettable”.

“If this is indeed the case, then it is yet more confirmation that the Russian ban on imports has nothing to do with public health and has been done entirely for political reasons,” said James Brown, a professor of international relations who specialises in Japan-Russia affairs at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

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“It is blatant hypocrisy, but I would also say it is perhaps not surprising because Russia is looking for ways to hit back at Japan for the international sanctions that it is taking part in and the seafood ban was one very visible way of doing that,” Brown told This Week in Asia.

Yakov Zinberg, a Russian-born professor of international relations at Tokyo’s Kokushikan University, argued that the Russian ships’ actions reflect “an element of revenge” against Japan for siding with Kyiv over the war in Ukraine.

“This is just the latest in a long line of bad behaviour from Moscow, which was very noticeably one of the few countries in the region that made no expressions of regret or offers of assistance to Japan immediately after the January 1 earthquake on the Noto Peninsula,” he said.

“These ships are there, in part, to show contempt for Japan and to underline Moscow’s position that it is free to go anywhere and do anything it wants to do,” Zinberg added. “I think Japan needs to be ready for more provocative moves like this.”

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Japan plans to peer inside the Fukushima nuclear plant using drones to safely decommission it

Japan plans to peer inside the Fukushima nuclear plant using drones to safely decommission it

Zinberg also suggested that the vessels may have been tasked with gathering intelligence on the responses and activities of the Japan coastguard or the air service arm of the Self-Defence Forces dispatched to monitor the ships’ movements.

The ships have also been detected operating in waters further north, including off the disputed Russian-occupied Kuril Islands. Japan claims a part of the Kuril Islands including the four southernmost islands off Hokkaido.

The Sankei also reported that Chinese fishing boats have been tracked operating off the coast of Fukushima prefecture and Hokkaido, although much further out to sea. These vessels’ operations have continued since water from the nuclear plant was released into the Pacific even though maritime products caught by Japanese trawlers operating in the same areas are banned in China.

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