Along Sea of Japan, it’s snow crab time

Published on
December 3, 2011

Along the Sea of Japan, fishing ports in Tottori, Shimane, Ishikawa, Fukui, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures have long been famous for snow crab (zuwaigani) and have built a fall and winter tourist industry around it. As the planned spring 2015 opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen between Tokyo and Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture will speed access to the area from the metropolis, prefectural authorities are stepping up PR efforts to build demand.

Travel time from Tokyo to Kanazawa is expected to be less than 2.5 hours, and the route should eventually extend at least as far as Tsuruga in southern Fukui Prefecture before connecting with existing lines in Kyoto.

Day-trip tours by train or bus from Osaka and Kyoto, which are closer to the coast, are already popular. Packages including transportation; a lunch of snow crab hotpot and other local products like spot prawns, beef and taro root; and a dip in a hot springs bath run from JPY 10,000 to 25,000 per adult (USD 125 to 312).

The season runs from 6 November to the end of March this year. Each prefecture promotes its branded products in its own way. For example, the snow crab Kyoto Danish seine fishery touts its Marine Stewardship Council certification.
Of all the local brands, Echizen crab is the most famous (Echizen is the old name of Fukui Prefecture). The city of Echizen in Fukui features the Crab Museum for visitors. Yellow plastic tags are put on the right claw of each Echizen crab so that even after boiling and serving customers can see the origin tag, which includes the name of the port of landing. The Fukui Prefectural Government and Fukui Prefectural Tourism Federation are responsible for tourism PR for Echizen crab. This year they distributed brochures at two of Tokyo’s busiest rail stations, Shinjuku and Ueno. The events included a tourism booth with banners, posters and panels and a crab-suited character.

Besides consuming crab at lunch, the tourists take home seafood souvenirs. For example, a bus tour originating in Nagoya includes stops at a fishcake factory and a seafood products shop.

Freshness is the main selling point for Japanese-origin crab. Snow crabs inhabit muddy bottoms from 40 to 200 meters. Cold deep water begins close offshore in the area, allowing the crabs to be caught near the ports and served in local inns on the same day.

Kanibiru, the eggs of a leech-like parasite which are sometimes attached to the crabs, are seen as an indicator of quality rather than a blemish. As the local sea bottom is muddy, there are few rocks to attach eggs to, leaving the crab shells as one the few available hard surfaces. Thus, authentic Sea of Japan crabs are more likely to have them. Additionally, a heavy accumulation may mean that months have passed since molting, indicating fuller meat.

On the opening day of the Echizen crab auction in Mikuni City, Fukui, large opilio weighing 1.6 kilograms sold at a high price of at JPY 33,400 (USD 410.94), while the same size crab last year fetched JPY 55,000 (USD 676.71). Early landings were 77 percent those of 2010.  

Most of the product is sold whole, to be used in hotpot dishes. Kani-miso, the green and slightly bitter guts, is heated with sake in the emptied carapace over a low flame and used as a dipping sauce.

On the other hand, imported products are usually sold as frozen sections or the meat is picked in China and re-exported for use on sushi or salads. Worldwide, Russia is the largest supplier of both king and snow crabs. As snow crab can be substituted for the more expensive king, the king crab market affects snow crab pricing. This year Russia has strictly enforced catch limits in the previously largely unregulated waters north of Japan. Direct landing of Russian crabbing vessels at ports in Hokkaido has been stopped.

Increased demand from Korea and China squeezed Russian sales to Japan, sending buyers to Canada’s maritime provinces, where they are credited with keeping prices strong. Particularly, Japan took snow crabs in the smaller and cheaper range, while larger specimens went to the United States. The number of opilio caught yearly in Japan is down about 5,000 metric tons, while about 60,000 metric tons are imported. Japan typically takes about 40 percent of Newfoundland and Labrador’s snow crab product, but this year the figure approached 50 percent.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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