Cheap fish lures Japanese consumers

Demand for Japanese seafood is being bolstered by bargains, which appeal to price-conscious housewives. In the first quarter of this year, one in four meals at home included fish, rising despite the long-term shift toward red meat in Japan.

Japan’s exports of Pacific saury, mackerel and pink salmon have been hit hard by weak Asian demand since the global economy took a nosedive, leaving much domestic fish unsold.

A rising yen since the crisis began also dampened overseas interest. The yen had traded between 105 and 110 per U.S. dollar in September 2008. It strengthened to less than 90 per U.S. dollar in January, and now trades at just under 96.

In particular, Pacific saury inventories have built up. Kesennuma is Japan’s main saury port. The top three export destinations for Pacific saury in the first quarter were Thailand at 9,618 metric tons, Korea at 3,130 metric tons and China at 2,012 metric tons. According to Trade Statistics of Japan, frozen saury exports in March were down 48.6 percent from the previous month, to 3,462 metric tons.

Processors finally had to liquidate frozen inventories in the domestic market before the summer fishing season, driving down retail prices considerably, which is spurring consumption. Saury, which usually retails for around 100 yen each, was advertised as low as 55 and 60 yen.

Saury exports for the second quarter may recover, driving up prices, as Georgia and Armenia import more Japanese saury and interest from Russia and the Ukraine grows. This week, retail saury prices had returned to more than 100 yen.

Supermarkets instead were pushing cheap salted Chilean silver salmon. Salmon consumption also surged in the first quarter, peaking in February. Salmon in Japan is often sold salted and eaten grilled for breakfast with rice.

Overall frequency of fish consumption rose about 10 percent from the start of the year to the end of April. The fish that are recently promoted are not sushi items, but rather fish for grilling, including mackerel and flounder.

Japanese gas ranges do not include an oven but instead have a built-in fish grill, making preparation of simple salted and grilled fish relatively easy.

Fish that can be sold at retail for less than 100 yen per serving readily find acceptance with today’s penny-pinching consumers.

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