Catch up, prices down for bonito in Japan

Published on
July 1, 2016

A few months ago, Japan’s bonito (or skipjack) season was getting off to a sluggish start, with poor catches. But a few massive hauls by purse seiners have reversed the situation and there is now a glut of bonito on the market and prices have gone south.

The volume sold at Tokyo’s Tsukiji wholesale market in the first few days of May was only a little over 20 percent that of the same time last year, and individual fish were also small, from 1.5 to 2 kilograms. Small fish tend to hug the coast, while larger fish are found in deeper waters.

May wholesale prices averaged JPY 750 yen (USD 7.31, EUR 6.59) per kg, while in Tokyo supermarkets, bonito sashimi sold from JPY 200 to 300 yen (USD 1.96 to 2.93, EUR 1.76 to 2.64) per 100 grams, about twice that of last year.

However, at the end of June, the price at Tsukiji was trading at around JPY 300/kg (USD 2.95, EUR 2.64). Compared with the average wholesale price in May, it had fallen by 60 percent. Even compared with the late June of 2015, it was 30 percent less. Retailers have dropped prices for raw bonito to 100 to 200 yen (USD 0.98 to 1.96, EUR 0.88 to 1.76) per 100 grams.

The turnaround came in late June, when purse seiners began operations aimed as tuna. A mixed school of fish including bonito was found off the Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture. Landings at the port of Katsuura in Chiba then made up lost ground, and landings have reached 90 percent of that through the same date last year. Meanwhile, in Miyagi Prefecture, fishermen working out of the port of Kesennuma landed 456 metric tons on a single day on 22 June.

Bonito, or katsuo in Japanese, is one of the most important fish on the Japanese menu. Dried and fermented, it becomes katsuobushi, one of the main ingredients in dashi soup stock. But bonito is also eaten in many other ways, including as sashimi and sushi. The most popular form of the food is tataki—seared on the outside, raw on the inside.

Bonito is still abundant in waters near Japan. Of all the meaty red-fleshed fish used for sushi and sashimi, it is the most sustainable. Females reach sexual maturity at two years of age, far earlier than the threatened bluefin, which takes five years. A three-kilogram female can lay up to two million eggs per year.

Hatsu-gatsuo, the “first catch” of bonito in late spring to early summer is particularly prized for sashimi and sushi. The taste is sometimes described as “sappari” (light and refreshing).

Shizo Satomi, in his book Sushi Chef: Sukiyabashi Jiro, wrote, “The only katsuo (bonito) nigiri I make is with hatsu gatsuo (the first bonito of the season) in spring, and I don’t use modori gatsuo (returing bonito) in autumn, because modori gatsuo is too greasy. But when it starts to appear in the spring, the fatty layer is thin, and it has its characteristic light aroma that’s very appealing.”

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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