Shortage of autumn fish forces Japan to search for unusual alternatives

Published on
November 14, 2017

Early catches of typical autumn fish are poor in Japan, following a recent trend that may be associated with climate change. 

Fall chum salmon, popular as grilled slices for breakfast or sautéed, are in short supply, as the early season catches have been light. Pacific saury, the food Japanese say they most associate with the autumn season (along with matsutake mushroom), are retailing fresh for JPY 350 to 400 (USD 3.10 to 3.54, EUR 2.66 to 3.04) each.

This has become a typical pattern in Japan in recent years. Fish that migrate into waters northeast of Japan during the summer, such as salmon and saury, are returning later as waters there remain warm longer. The result is disappointing early catches for seasonal seafood, though these typically improve later in the season. 

As Japanese especially look forward to seasonal seafood dishes at specific times, it is for them somewhat like if an American was told turkeys were in short supply for Thanksgiving.

One solution is just waiting a little longer for the fish to arrive, but timing is not the only problem. The fish now linger in international waters, so Chinese and Taiwanese vessels get to fish them longer before they move into Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It also raises costs for fishermen, as they have to make longer trips from port to fish, burning more fuel.

But there is a bright spot – sardines, which like warm water – are fat, large, and plentiful this year. The phenomenon of alternating abundance of anchovies and sardines, with sardines in warm years and anchovies in cool, occurs off the U.S. West Coast and has been studied extensively. The same occurs in Japan, with the current warming trend favoring sardines.

The sardine catch through 22 October in the main producing area off Kushiro, Hokkaido exceeded 100,000 metric tons (MT), the first time since 1992, when it was 140,000 MT. The wholesale price in mid-October at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market was 20 percent lower than in the same period last year, with sales volumes 25 percent higher than the same period in 2016. The average price on 23 October was JPY 486 (USD 4.29, EUR 3.69) per kilogram for fresh sardines.

At retail, packs of seven or eight fresh sardines of approximately 110 to 120 grams each are sold in the range of JPY 300 to 390 (USD 2.64 to 3.43, EUR 2.26 to 2.94). The price is almost the same as in the same period last year regarding the number of fish, but the size of the fish is 10 to 20 percent bigger. Thus, it appears that sardines may dominate sales at supermarkets this fall instead of saury, salmon, and squid. 

However, they will have competition from a new quarter. Little-known deep-sea fish will make their way from local specialties to national distribution this year. These fish inhabit depths of 200 to 600 meters. 

Suruga Bay, in Shizuoka Prefecture, is 2,500 meters deep, and has become well-known for its unusual fish, such as bigeyed greeneyes, known as “mehikari” in Tokyo or “torobochi” in the port town of Numazu in Shizuoka (Chlorophthalmus borealis). It also sports deep sea smelt, called “nigisu” in Tokyo, but “megisu” in Numazu (Glossanodon semifasciatus) and Japanese grenadier, called “tozin” in Tokyo, but “geho” in Numazu (Caelorinchus japonicus). The season there is opened in late September, so many of these fish will come to market this fall. 

Other areas in Japan known for deep-sea fish are Odawara City Kanagawa Prefecture, known for skilfish (“abura-bozu” in Japanese, Erilepis zonifer in Latin) and Toyama Prefecture, which features eelpout ("Norogenge" in Japanese and Bothrocara hollandi in Latin), which the local Kitokito-ya Seafood Market  describes in English as “ugly bottom fish.”

However, seafood marketers face an uphill battle in convincing Japanese consumers that these newcomers to the market – many grotesque with huge bulging eyes – should replace traditional autumn fish on dinner menus across the country.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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