Early-season Pacific saury score record prices in Japan

The first Pacific saury of the season was landed in Kushiro, Hokkaido on 9 July. As the early catches are small, the price at Tokyo’s Tsukiji wholesale market on 11 June was at all-time high of JPY 22,000 (USD 207.79, EUR 186.62) per kilogram, the highest price for the last six years and about 60 percent higher than is usual for this time of year. At such prices, the demand is mainly from high-end sushi shops and luxury department stores.

A trend of light early-season landings garnering exceptionally high prices is growing for various species, as the same pattern was recently seen for bonito at Tsukiji, when catches in early May were only 20 percent of usual and prices doubled. This was followed by a glut in late June and a 60 percent fall in price from May. This was also 30 percent off the price of late June 2015.

Scabbard fish (Trichiurus japonicas), which is a popular summer fish in the Kansai region (around Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto) similarly became high-priced, with sales mainly to the restaurant trade, when catches were poor in May and early June. This may be due to a desire of some restaurants to advertise that they have the first fresh fish of the season, somewhat like the much-criticized first bluefin auction of the year, which is also mainly for boasting rights, as the product is invariably sold at a loss.

Fishing for Pacific saury (Cololabis saira) comes into full swing in August. Then, prices are expected to fall on increased volumes. In the second half of August, whole saury can usually be found at reasonable prices in retail stores. A medium-sized raw Pacific saury weighs around 130 grams and can usually be found on sale at the peak of the season for 100 yen per fish. This works out to about 76 yen per 100 grams, or JPY 760 (USD 71.90, EUR 64.60) per kg.

As a result of its usual low price and the high volumes typically landed, saury, or “sanma” in Japanese, is the most recognized and popular fish of the early fall season. The fish is so ubiquitous in season that Japanese gas ranges have two or three burners on top, with a pull-out fish broiler specifically designed to the length of a saury. (There is no oven in a Japanese gas range, as most Japanese eat rice instead of baking. Instead, oven toasters are used, or the microwave has a convection oven function.)

Saury is usually cooked in the round, head and tail on, and not even gutted, making home preparation easy. When eaten with chopsticks, the meat can be carefully separated from the many small bones and guts during the meal. Grated daikon radish and “sudachi” (like a lime) are the traditional accompaniments.

Japan is self-sufficient in saury. In 2015, the catch totaled 112,237 metric tons, while in 2014, 217,345 MT of saury were landed. The big fluctuations in volume are thought to move inversely to the stock of Japanese sardines (Sardinops melanostictus), which compete with saury for zooplankton.

Saury are mostly in North Pacific waters northeast of Russia’s Kuril Islands in the summer, but as waters cool in fall, they make their way into Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Last year, Taiwanese fleets fished saury heavily just outside the Japanese EEZ, while warm water associated with global warming or perhaps the El Niño kept the schools north longer. Japanese fishers complained that time and fuel costs to fishing grounds were high and cut into profits.


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