17 Lake Tazawa: The Lazarus fish

In the morning I walked along the mighty lake to the local history museum.  According to the written register, I was the first visitor in 3 days. A desolate spot on the 2nd floor of a concrete building next to a huge, empty car park.  One small rectangular room of glass-cased exhibits, all labelled in Japanese. 

Exhibition mostly devoted to the Lazarus fish, the rare kunimasu (local salmon).  Kunimasu has a black back, white flesh and little fat.  A treasured food, once presented as a gift to the old Lord of Akita. While most salmon go out to sea then return upriver to give birth, the kunimasu just stay in the lake, 100 metres below the surface where the temperature remains a constant, chilled 4-5 degrees.

In 1940 Japan was fighting a desperate war with China.  It needed more electricity.  In a reckless move, the sulphurous Tamagawa river was diverted into Lake Tazawa to feed a hydro-electric dam.  This killed all the kunimasu; the Tamagawa`s waters were too acidic.

Until a couple of years ago, the kunimasu was considered extinct.  One display showed a wanted poster with a 5,000,000 yen reward for finding one.  Then the fish was rediscovered in a lake near Mount Fuji, saved by a forgotten conservation project.

But Lake Tazawa remains too acidic to provide a home again for the kunimasu.  Its waters are ph 5.5.  They used to be ph 6.5.   

The man at reception offered me his yen`s worth:  “The only way to restore the lake is to completely drain it and then let the natural springs fill it up again.”

“The experts have all sorts of opinions but they only ever say anything after the event.  None of them predicted 3/11 did they?”

The lake had looked invincible, far too big and far too remote to be damaged by modern man. But again I was wrong, a nasty habit I have picked up recently.   

Read National Geographic article on kunimasu here.

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