Fresh sea urchin demand strong in Japan

Published on
November 23, 2018

Traugott Fischer, a German living in Lima, Peru, is developing a scallop farm using the Peruvian scallop (Argopecten purpuratus) and intending to apply the Japanese “ear hanging” method. 

Alongside this venture, Fischer told SeafoodSource he hopes to export sea urchin roe (“uni” in Japanese) from Peru to Japan. He said that Peru supplies the same species of sea urchin as Chile, (Loxechinus albus), which has a good reputation in Japan. 

The suppliers Fischer deals with are packing in water, but the extra weight is uneconomical for airfreight, which he estimates as costing USD 4.40 (EUR 3.86) per kilogram net weight of sea urchin roe. So he is considering whether some other forms, such as frozen, baked, or steamed, could be marketed, as these could be shipped by cheaper sea freight. Fischer has also been on the hunt for information on sea urchin processing methods, allowed additives, moisture content, high-demand seasons and pricing.

Maruwazu Trading Co. Ltd., based in Sakai, Japan, was formed in 1987, employs 10 people and imports sea urchin roe from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Chile, and Peru, and China. They market their urchin through the seafood auctions and direct to sushi restaurants. The staff, including manager Hideki Nakai and sales director Mai Nishio provided SeafoodSource with some of the answers Fischer seeks.

Nishio said that while there is demand for frozen uni, the product from Chile is well-known and already satisfies the market. She thought that it would be difficult for Peru to break into this product category when the buyers already know and trust Chilean product. Nakai said that though Chile has surpassed the U.S. as an uni supplier, the U.S. is expected to rebound somewhat, as the quality of its uni is high, the species found there are “excellent,” and the decline has been mainly an effect of El Niño weather patterns in the last few years.

While Japan’s demand for frozen uni is currently being satisfied, Nishio said there is strong demand there for fresh uni (nama uni), and she said new supply sources will find a good market in Japan if the quality is high. Domestic uni is available year-round from different areas of Japan, but there is a general shortage, and good quality fresh uni can find a market in all seasons. Local bad weather conditions also cause temporary price spikes in the markets, as they prevent fishing.

Uni is graded into three categories. “A” grade uni has good yellow or orange color and smooth texture and firmness. “B” grade has a darker color or rougher texture. Uni grades as “C” if the appearance is very rough, such as having holes, or a mushy appearance due to excess water content. “C” grade is mainly used in paste or sauce products, rather than for the sushi trade. It is frozen in blocks for processing.

Nishio said that water-packing is not suitable for export sales, not only because it is heavy, but also because adjusting the water content without breakage during handling is difficult. The water pack must be sent to a factory to be drained and repacked, so it is difficult to deal with. For its potential upside, Nishio said she prefers fresh uni with no additives. There is not a certain specified moisture content percentage. Rather, it is graded visually. If it is too moist, it will not hold shape and takes on an unappealing shine, mushiness, and melting quality.

Maruwaza sells its uni in two packing styles. For nama uni, the most favored presentation in the market is in a traditional cedar box holding about 40 grams of product. The company also sells 100-gram portions on plastic trays. As the cedar box is traditional, it gets a better price, about 50 percent more, though the shipping cost and cost of the boxes are more. The boxes are stacked up in a polystyrene case and topped with several hard-frozen gel packs for air shipment.

The flights from Peru usually go via Dallas, Texas and then on to Japan. Total transit time is about 1.5 days. The shipments are checked at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport and sent on to the Toyosu seafood auction house in Tokyo.

Maruwazu Trading has two different arrangements with suppliers: Contract sales at a fixed price (sometimes with higher prices stipulated for the Obon and Oshogatsu holidays in mid-August and the New Year); and consignment sales. For new suppliers, Nakai and Nishio recommend consignment sales, though the price is determined at auction and is not guaranteed. 

The company does welcome new suppliers, but is always careful to avoid importing from areas affected by vibrio and bacterial diseases. The company works with suppliers to confirm and improve sanitation, freshness, and cold-chain. Nakai said that even though a product grades “A,” there is still some difference in quality within each grade, and better quality is rewarded by the buyers with higher prices.

Photo courtesy of Jaymee Sire/E is for Eat

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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