Winter is the season for fugu, a dangerous delicacy in Japan

Winter temperatures are luring hungry diners to warm broths and more substantial - and potentially risky - seafood fare.

While crab hotpot is a popular New Year holiday favorite in Japan, “techiri-nabe,” or blowfish hotpot, runs a close second.

“Fugu,” in Japanese, goes by various names in English, including blowfish, pufferfish, globefish and swellfish. In Japan, it is famous not only for its delicate taste, but also for its deadly poison, contained in the liver and ovaries. As a result, its importation and preparation have been regulated.

There are regional preferences in blowfish consumption; “Tessa,” a seafood platter of thinly sliced blowfish, often laid out in a pattern like a crane or a chrysanthemum, is more popular in Tokyo, while hotpot is more common in Western Japan.

Two species make up the bulk of sales: “tora-fugu” or tiger pufferfish, and “karasu-fugu” or eyespot puffer. These species are preferred in Japan because they are traditional, being found in nearby waters. Also among the most popular species are vermiculated puffer, purple puffer and striped puffer.

Fugu imported to Japan should be whole or gutted and individually frozen to allow easy identification, or if block-frozen, the top and bottom of each fish should be visible. If mixed species are packed together, they must be inspected in Japan to confirm the species. So, it is best to pack each species separately. The import duty is 3.5 percent.

Over 20,000 MT of pufferfish are produced in China, including about 4,000 MT of tiger puffer and 6,000 MT of obscure puffer, mostly for export to Japan and South Korea, according to an International Union for Conservation of Nature species report. 

The city of Shimonoseki, home of the only public auction devoted to fugu, reported that 2014 import volume of fugu to the port, all from China, was 4,503 metric tons, valued at JPY 859 million (USD 7.5 million, EUR 6.4 million). For 2016, Japan customs data showed imports from China of 4,633 MT valued at JPY 1.5 billion (USD 13.2 million, EUR 11.2 million) and from Taiwan of 17 MT valued at JPY 12 million, (USD 106,000, EUR 90,000). 

National data from 2008 showed a domestic wild catch of 4,954 MT, domestic aquaculture production of 4,410 MT, (total domestic of 9, 364 MT) and imports of 6,543 metric tons. Aquaculture volume in 2010 had reached 4,965 MT.

Most aquaculture effort is focused on the tiger puffer, and it is the fifth-most valuable farmed fish species in Japan. The aquaculture trend in fugu is toward land-based systems, which eliminate the risk of parasitic diseases that cause high death losses in ocean-farmed systems.

In recent years, three events relating to fugu are significant. 

First, in 2012, faced with heavy competition from home delivery of internet orders from other prefectures, Tokyo dropped a requirement for licensing chefs at restaurants that serve the fish with the poisonous organs already removed, leading to increased consumption. 

Second, in 2016, the Saga prefectural government and Manbou Corp., which operates land-based fish farms in the prefecture, requested the national government to approve sales of non-poisonous fugu liver, even planning to test the most poisonous parts of the liver to confirm safety. Scientists at Nagasaki University had found that the toxins in blowfish originate not from the fish themselves, but from certain bacteria that the fish consume with their preferred foods of shellfish, starfish, and crustaceans. When reared in net pens well off the ocean floor and fed a diet of mackerel, the toxins are absent. But many restaurants were wary that diners might mistakenly believe that all blowfish liver is safe, or that there would be accidental admixture of safe and unsafe livers. The Food Safety Commission, a central government advisory panel, finally recommended against it.

And third, a recent study showed that hybrids of two species normally living on opposite sides of Honshu Island have begun to hybridize. The spottyback puffer from the Sea of Japan crossed through the Straights of Tsugaru separating Honshu and Hokkaido Islands and moved into the Northeast Pacific, possibly facilitated by warmer ocean temperatures that allowed it to extend its range northward. It is now hybridizing with the pear puffer. The study analyzed the DNA of pear puffers off NE Japan from 2012 to 2015 and found that over half of the samples were hybrids. As the species of the hybrids cannot be clearly identified, and thus which parts are poisonous cannot be clearly established, they are discarded.

Species of fugu allowed to be imported to Japan are:  Red-eyed puffer (Takifugu chrysops), Smooth-backed blowfish (Lagocephalus inermis), Eyespot puffer (Takifugu chinensis), Grass puffer (Takifugu niphobles), Brown-backed toadfish (Laocephalus gloveri), Striped puffer (Takifugu xanthopterum), Tiger puffer (Takifugu rubripes), Obscure puffer (Takifugu obscurus), Spottyback puffer (Takifugu stictonotus), Finepatterned puffer (Takifugu poecilonotus), Tawny puffer (Takifugu flavidus), Vermiculated puffer (Takifugu snyderi), Halfsmooth golden pufferfish (Laocephalus wheeleri), Green toadfish (Laocephalus lunaris), Pear puffer (Takifugu vermicularis), Panther Puffer (Takifugu pardalis), Purple puffer (Takifugu porphyreus), Slackskinned puffer (Sphoeroides pachygaster), Spotfin burrfish (Chilomycterus reticulatus), Longspined porcupinefish (Diodon holocanthus), Black-blotched porcupinefish (Diodon liturosus), Spotfin porcupinefish (Diodon hystrix), and Yellow boxfish (Ostracion cubicus). 


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