Fresh COVID restrictions bode ill for tuna wholesalers, but online sales offer hope

Published on
December 29, 2020

Seafood wholesalers at the Toyosu Wholesale Market in Tokyo, Japan, can expect lower restaurant demand at the holidays due to fresh COVID-19 restrictions, but some have teamed up with online marketers to sell high-end items like bluefin tuna and snow crab directly to consumers.

Restaurants and bars were asked on 14 December to close by 10 p.m. by the governors of Tokyo, Osaka, Aichi, Saitama, Kanagawa, and Okinawa prefectures. In Gifu Prefecture, shops that serve alcohol were asked to close at 9 p.m. Most of the closures only apply over the busy New Year holiday period, when many people traditionally visit their hometowns and meet friends and family.

Additionally, the national government has halted its “Go-To Eat” and “Go-To Travel” subsidy campaigns that were designed to support the hospitality industry.

The first Go-To Eat campaign was extended to February after its initial funding was used up, but it was subsequently suspended in Tokyo and 12 other prefectures as it began to be seen as contributing to the spread of COVID-19. It is planned to resume in March at a lower discount of 20 percent off, down from the initial 25 percent.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced on 14 December that the Go-To Travel campaign will be suspended nationwide from 28 December to 11 January. The government had previously been simultaneously asking people to be careful and paying them to travel domestically. The policy about-face was forced by the rapidly falling number of available hospital beds for COVID-19 patients. The government had to admit that its mixed message, intended to strike a balance between supporting the economy and ensuring availability of healthcare, wasn’t working.

The restrictions did not have an immediate effect on prices and volumes at the public seafood auctions that supply the restaurants. In the early morning of the day the new measures were announced, 45,461 kilograms of fresh bluefin tuna were sold at Toyosu, at an average price of JPY 3,402 (USD 32.93, EUR 26.93) per kilogram, and 18,937 kilograms of frozen tuna were sold at an average of JPY 2,835 (USD 27.44, EUR 22.44). Three days after the measures were announced, on 17 December, prices were largely unchanged. This may be because the measures do not actually go into effect in most prefectures until 28 December.

However, tuna prices are depressed compared with last year. The average price of fresh bluefin on 14 December 2019 was JPY 10,152 (USD 97.99, EUR 80.45) or 2.9 times the current level. The average price of frozen bluefin was JPY 3,120 (USD 30.11, EUR 24.72), or 10 percent higher. Frozen is less affected, as it can be held until demand recovers.

With high-end items priced low, they have become more appealing for online purchase. Leading seafood items sold online in the current season include tuna, crab, sea urchin roe, salmon roe, abalone, and scallops.

An example is Toyosu Maguro Tonya (Toyosu Tuna Wholesaler), an online shop operated by Tokyo-based Food Stream Japan since 2009. It casts it marketing net widely, with shops on several market platforms: Rakuten, Amazon, Yahoo Shopping, Yahoo Auction, and Ponpare Mall, as well as its own freestanding site.

As an example of the prices offered, 200 grams of Otoro (fatty tuna belly) sell for JPY 4,240 (USD 41.06, EUR 33.56); 200 grams of Chutoro (medium tuna belly) sells for JPY 3,580 (USD 34.67, EUR 28.35) and 200 grams of Akami (tuna red meat) of bluefin sell for JPY 3,160 (USD 30.60, EUR 28.35).

On its website, the company lists as its “customers” several Japanese food companies, indicating that it handles online sales for food companies, rather than on its own account.  

Photo courtesy of Osugi/Shutterstock

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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