Japan frets as competition ramps up for Pacific saury in Asia

When the Japanese government relaxed visa requirement for Chinese visitors a few years ago, it hoped to boost the number of tourists. It certainly succeeded.

Japan issued 3.78 million visas to Chinese nationals in 2015, up 85 percent from 2014. In June alone, 731,400 Chinese visitors entered the country, a monthly record. Those shoppers have been buying electronic goods and cosmetics, and have been feasting on Japanese dishes – especially seafood.

One fish many had never tried before their visit was Pacific saury (Cololabis saira). The Chinese visitors liked it, and when they returned home, they asked fish dealers to get it for them.

As a result of the new demand, Chinese fleets have been increasingly targeting the fish in international waters northeast of Hokkaido, in competition with the already established Taiwanese fleet. China’s catches of Pacific saury have been increasing yearly, and last year were 38 times that of 2012, when the fleet began targeting the species. Japan’s catch meanwhile, has declined.

Taiwan is still the major distant-water fleet targeting saury. Taiwan’s total saury catch for 2014 was 230,000 metric tons (MT). China caught 76,000 MT in the same year. In contrast, about 157,000 MT of saury were caught in 2013 by Japanese boats, only about 8,000 that in international waters.

In 2015, Japan’s catch totaled 112,237 metric tons. Japan’s total catch in 2015 was the lowest in 40 years and prices were 20 to 30 percent above normal levels. A medium-sized raw Pacific saury weighs around 130 grams and can usually be found on sale at the peak of the season for 100 yen per fish. This works out to about 76 yen per 100 grams, or JPY 760 (USD 7.40, EUR 6.59) per kg. This year, a late start to the season caused prices to spike to about 60 percent above the norm in August but prices have now declined by 30 percent.

Global warming is also playing a part in denying Japan one of its favorite fish. In typical years, saury leave the cold waters northeast of Japan and run down the coast as far as the Boso Peninsula, near Tokyo. But recent warmer waters have kept the schools north and east of Japan longer, and the runs have changed routes. They are now plentiful in waters about halfway between Japan and Hawaii.

In October 2016, China rejected a Japanese proposal to freeze the number of saury fishing boats operated by members of the North Pacific Fisheries Commission (Japan, China, Taiwan, Russia, South Korea Canada and the U.S.A.). China argues that its haul is smaller than Japan’s and is still developing. In scientific presentations at the NPFC meeting, Japanese scientists said that a survey in the broad area of the North Pacific demonstrated a stock decreasing trend with a continuous increasing of fishing rate. Japan and Russia both reported a decrease of catch per unit effort (CPUE ) in their national waters. However, Taiwan reported that CPEU from its commercial fishery was slowly increasing.

This means that coastal fleets will have fewer fish and those operating outside the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) at a farther distance from the coast will see more. Most Japanese fishing is within the country’s EEZ. Fuel expenses are lower when fishing closer to port, and prices are higher for fresh than for salted and frozen product. For example, at the Maruyasu supermarket chain in Osaka on 10 September, frozen salted, with guts removed was retailing at 100 yen per fish, while fresh (including guts) was at 150 yen per fish.

For fresh saury, it is typical to grill them with the guts, which while not actually eaten, give a slightly bitter taste to the meat. The grilled fish is topped with grated daikon radish and the juice of a “sudachi” (like a lime).

Lately, Japanese people are wondering how the Chinese eat saury.


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