Seeking a niche, Japanese market dives into live fish

Published on
August 31, 2016

Local fisheries cooperatives in Japan have a hard time selling commodities into a buyers’ market, as supermarkets increase their market share and negotiating power. Differentiation is the key getting premium prices.

Due to proximity to the Osaka market, Akashi-ura Fisheries Cooperative, based in Akashi City, Hyogo Prefecture, has chosen to specialize in live fish and is promoting its advanced handling techniques for fresh fish.

The typical processing of live fish begins with sorting into categories of good, weak and dead fish, usually conducted by the fishermen’s wives. They are then separated by species into plastic baskets and these are placed in a dark aquarium to relieve stress. The time they are held there depends on the species.

Deep-water fish will die from overexpansion of the swim bladder when brought to the surface. To avoid this, a needle is inserted through the anus to release air from the swim bladder. This must be done carefully, so as not to damage other internal organs.

In the case of sea bream, the ikejime method is used to kill the fish so as to retain the best flavor and freshness. A spike is driven into the brain to obtain brain death. Then, the spine is severed just behind the gills and the fish is bled in cold ice water. A wire is then passed into the spinal column from rear to front to destroy the nerves—this is said to prevent the cells from receiving information that the fish is dead. The fish is also de-scaled.

Six local fisheries cooperatives in the Akashi area have acquired a trademark for “Akashi sea bream” to differentiate it from other localities. The mark is attached only to wild bream over 800 grams caught by pole and line. Additionally, the trademark in all lowercase text is used to signify bream over 1 kg caught in the peak months of August to November when the fish are the fattiest.

The cooperative, which has 280 members and sales of 2.29 billion yen (USD 22.29 million, EUR 16 million), deals in a very wide range of species, and its fishermen use a variety of equipment types, including pole-and-line, seine nets and diving. 

Octopus is the area’s most famous product and Akashi-yaki, the local version of taco-yaki (a piece of octopus cooked in a ball of batter and covered with sauce, aonori seaweed and shaved fermented bonito), is the town’s namesake dish. But the species sold by the cooperative also include flower shrimp, squid, stingray, grunt, sole, wrasse, parrotfish, croaker flounder, greenling, rockfish, sand lance and conger eel. 

The auctions are held at 11:30 a.m., in contrast to most Japanese fish markets which start the auctions from the very early morning. Thus, it is referred to as a “day market.” The later auction time allows the fish to have a resting period before being transported. The cooperative has 14 officers and is run by a staff of 23.

One of the cooperative’s marketing techniques is to post recipes for the fish they offer on Cookpad.com, a popular online recipe site. They have posted 548 recipes so far. They also comment on Facebook and Twitter to attract interest in the market.

The direct marketing activities of the cooperative, as opposed to the usual consignment to central auctions, began with joint marketing of live fish with Kobe Coop, a consumer cooperative supermarket chain based in nearby Kobe City. An evaluation by Kinki University a decade ago determined that despite active marketing, profits from direct marketing had not increased greatly in recent years.

Though finding a niche may be necessary for fishermen to survive, it seems that the limited size of niche markets may put a cap on growth, unless new niches are constantly developed.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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