Japan, a leading producer of mackerel, is also Norway’s most-important market

Published on
January 17, 2023
Pieces of mackerel, imported to Japan from Norway.

Japan, a major producer and exporter of mackerel, is also a major importer and it represents Norway’s most important international market for the species.

Despite catching hundreds of thousands of tons of mackerel, demand from Japanese consumers results in a high volume of imports of the species – with the vast majority of imports coming from Norway. This is because the Atlantic mackerel (Scomber scombrus) imported from Norway is larger and fattier than the local species.

The two species caught in Japan –Pacific chub mackerel (Scomber japonicus), also called “ma-saba” (true mackerel) in Japanese, and blue mackerel (Scomber australasicus), “goma-saba” (sesame mackerel) in Japanese, as its spots are thought to resemble sesame seeds. The fish are caught off the coasts of the Hokkaido and the Sanriku regions, and have been running small and lean in recent years and tend to arrive later in the year due to changes in ocean currents and water temperature. This has left canneries in the area short of material of suitable size. 

In 2021, Japanese mackerel production amounted to 434,400 metric tons (MT), an increase of 44,600 MT, or 11.4 percent, from the previous year, due to increased catches in Nagasaki and Iwate prefectures, according to the “2021 Fishery and Aquaculture Production Statistics,” published by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The top prefectures for mackerel landings in 2021 were, in order with their share, Ibaraki, with 16.2 percent; Nagasaki, with 14.1 percent; Shizuoka, with 9.7 percent; Mie, with 9.1 percent; and Miyazaki, with 8.3 percent. These statistics lump together Pacific chub mackerel and blue mackerel.

Catches in the last decade have ranged from a low of 375,000 MT in 2013 to a high of 542,000 MT in 2018. The same report gives the average price levels at the port of landing, and shows that prices per kilogram during the period have ranged from a low of JPY 79 (USD 0.59, EUR 0.56) to a high of JPY 110 (USD 0.82, EUR 0.78), making it among the lowest priced fish landed, along with sardines and Alaska pollock.

Reports for 2022, though still incomplete, point to a catch around the same quantity as in 2021, but with many light fish, while the market favors fish over 500 grams each. The landed price in the Sanriku region in November was around JPY 103 (USD 0.77, EUR 0.72).

The Statistics Bureau of Japan shows, in its “Family Income and Expenditure Survey of FY 2022,” that the average annual per-person consumption of mackerel in a Japanese family consisting of two or more people steadily declined from 1,100 grams in 2015 to 815 grams in 2021, while the price per 100 grams has remained fairly steady at JPY 100 (USD 0.75, EUR 0.70) in 2015 and JPY 103 (USD 0.77, EUR 0.72) in 2022.

Mackerel is frozen and is consumed throughout the year. However, seasonally, prices are lower in the winter and early spring, and consumption rises in response. In 2022, retail prices rose to JPY 126 (USD 0.94, EUR 0.88) in September, due to poor early catches at the time when customers wanted to taste the first mackerel of the fall season. By December, the price had fallen back below JPY 100 (USD 0.78, EUR 0.72).

According to Japanese Customs data for mackerel exports through November 2022,Japan exported 119,319 MT of frozen mackerel, valued at JPY 17.9 billion (USD 133.8 million, EUR 125.4 million). The average price was about JPY 150 (USD 1.12, EUR 1.05) per kilogram. The main markets were Vietnam, Thailand, and Egypt.

In the full year of 2021, it shipped 176,689 MT, valued at about JPY 22 billion (USD 164.5 million, EUR 154.7 million). The average price was about JPY 124 (USD 0.92, EUR 0.87). Vietnam and Thailand were the top destinations that year also, while the Philippines was third, and Egypt was not a major buyer. Japan competes in the Egyptian mackerel market with the Netherlands, Oman, Spain, and Norway.

The smaller, leaner fish caught in Japan are exported at low prices, while Atlantic mackerel is imported for Japanese consumption. Grilled mackerel is common in boxed lunches sold in supermarkets, convenience stores, and take-out shops across Japan, and mackerel from Norway is very popular for grilled preparation, due to its large size and higher fat content.

As a result of Atlantic mackerel’s popularity, Japan imports a significant portion of the mackerel it consumes – despite being a major producer of the species. Imports of mackerel and some other fish into Japan are permitted through a limited allocation of import permits. The system is intended to protect Japanese fishermen, but in practice the amount of quota available is much larger than is used. As such, the application process, in which a declaration of intent to import must be announced on a certain day each year, represents a layer of red tape that favors imports through Japanese trading companies.

In 2021, Japanese Customs data shows total imports of frozen mackerel of 73,532 MT, with 66,480 MT of that coming from Norway. Ireland was a distant second-place supplier with 5,583 MT. Average prices for imports were around JPY 250 (USD 1.87, EUR 1.87) per kilogram, reflecting the larger size and higher quality of the Atlantic mackerel. For fresh mackerel, nearby South Korea is Japan’s main supplier, with a small amount flown in from Norway.

The total volume of mackerel supplied to Japan by Norway may be much larger than above, as there is also processing into frozen fillets and IQF pieces in third countries.

“Japan is Norway's largest and most-crucial mackerel market,” Norwegian Seafood Council Manager for Pelagic Species Jan Eirik Johnsen said in a press release. “Calculations show that around 140,000 metric tons of Norwegian mackerel were exported to Japan in 2022. It is at the same level as the previous year. This means that over 40 percent of the mackerel exported from Norway ends up in Japan.” 

The NSC reports that frozen whole mackerel set a new price record in 2022, with an average of NOK 18.05 (USD 1.76, EUR 1.67) per kilogram. The previous record was from 2019, with NOK 17.96 (USD 1.75, EUR 1.66) per kilogram on average.  

Photos by Chris Loew/SeafoodSource

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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