High octopus price opens Japan’s market to new suppliers

Published on
August 1, 2017

On 2 July, Japan celebrated Octopus Day – which didn’t take much coercion for most of the population in this seafood-mad country.

In Kansai, which includes Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe – as well as Akashi, the birthplace of tako-yaki – people get in to the spirit. Denizens of those regions celebrated the day by eating such dishes as octopus sashimi; a vinegared salad of cucumber, octopus and wakame seaweed; or tako-yaki (octopus in balls of batter). 

And as this wonderful day approached, this reporter received an email from Venezuela asking if there was a market opportunity for Venezuela-caught octopus in Japan, to which the short answer is, it depends on the time of year.

Usually, Moroccan and Mauritanian octopus is dominant in the Japanese market, but whenever it is in short supply, Japanese buyers go looking to fill the gap. Taking last year as an example, Japan imported about 17,000 metric tons (MT) from Morocco and a little over 12,000 MT from Mauritania. However, Japan also bought nearly 8,000 MT of octopus from China; 3,000 MT from Vietnam. Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, India, and Peru each contributed under 1000 MT…and Venezuela did not show up in the statistics at all.

Japanese import volumes follow a seasonal pattern, with increasing volumes from January to April, then a sudden drop in May, with further declines through August before rising again in the fall or early winter. In April and May, biological rest periods for the octopus fisheries in Morocco and Mauritania – Japan’s top octopus suppliers – mean decreased exports. During this break, it is usually unknown what the catch limits and prices of the next fishing period will be. 

Morocco’s 2017 octopus season opened later than last year, and strong demand in Europe made it harder for Japanese buyers to secure product, especially as buyers in the European Union snapped up the size preferred by the Japanese market (size 6), forcing the Japanese to bid on sizes 7 and 8, which in turn pushed up prices on these sizes. South Korea also competes for similar-sized product. 

The U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported octopus trade at Tsukiji, Japan’s largest seafood market, from April as 223 MT, selling at an average price of JPY 583 (USD 5.17, EUR 4.51) per kilogram. That’s up from an average for the period of January through April, when prices averaged JPY 548 USD 4.86, EUR 4.24).

In Mauritania, the 7 July update of prices of the relevant sizes by the Société Mauritanienne de Commercialisation de Poissons (SMCP), the official fish marketing body of Mauritania, per MT, were as follows: Frozen on board, size 6 – USD 9,125 (EUR 7,830); size 7 – USD 8,810 (EUR 7,560); size 8 – USD 8,285 (EUR 7,110). Frozen on shore, pots, size 6 – USD 9,325 (EUR 8,000), size 7 – USD 9,010 (EUR 7,730), size 8 – USD 8,485 (EUR 7,280).

These prices are nearly 30 percent higher compared with mid-February of this year, when the prices were: Frozen on board, size 6 – USD 6,625 (EUR 5,680); size 7 – USD 6,310 (EUR 5,410); and size 8 – USD 5,785 (EUR 5,585), while for octopus frozen on shore, pots, the price per MT, size 6 were USD 6,825 (EUR 5,855); size 7 – USD 6,510 (EUR 5,585); and size 8 – USD 5,985 (EUR 5,130).

Such a price situation could indeed have Japanese buyers looking for new sources. China and Vietnam may be near their production limits, similar to African sources, but Indonesia still has room to expand, and is doing so. 

The Jakarta Post reported that exports of frozen octopus to Japan through state-owned fishery firm Perinus began in May, with 30 tons of frozen octopus shipped to Ibaraki Prefecture port from Makassar, South Sulawesi. The shipment was the result of a cooperation agreement between Indonesia and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Perinus plans to export 1,000 MT of frozen octopus to Japan this year through Ajirushi Company, a private company selected by JICA for the project.

The Indonesian product is likely to be slightly closer to the octopus native to Japan than that from the Atlantic. While the trade usually considers Japanese octopus to be the same species as that imported from Africa, Octopus vulgaris, last fall, Ian Gleadall, a British researcher at Tohoku University's Graduate School of Agricultural Science asserted that important differences, mainly in the length of the arm and the number of suckers, qualifies the common octopus found in East Asia to be categorized as a separate species, Octopus sinensis. However, as the differences do not seem to affect taste, there is unlikely to be much of a marketing advantage over vulgaris. 

In Venezuela, while octopus has long been a by-catch of shrimp trawling, fishermen there have now recognized its value and the profitability of a directed fishery. The product has mostly gone to the local tourist market, but now export possibilities are being explored. 

In other words, yes, Venezuela, you have a chance!  

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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