Japan getting creative to promote sea pineapple following trade spat with South Korea

The sea pineapple (Halocynthia roretzi) is an edible ascidian, or sea squirt, consumed primarily in South Korea, and to a lesser extent in Japan, where it is known as hoya or maboya. It looks like a bumpy yellow ball. The inside of the ball is filled with seawater which the animal can eject at will, and it also contains edible organs.

Miyagi Prefecture, in northeast Honshu Island, is the major producer of farmed sea pineapple, while neighboring Iwate Prefecture harvests wild sea pineapple. It grows best in cold water, between two and 24 degrees Celsius. The taste is described as being slightly astringent – its flavor has been attributed to a small quantity of unsaturated alcohol called cynthiaol it contains. As a result, it is said to compliment sake well.

About 70 percent of Miyagi Prefecture’s production was exported to South Korea before the Tohoku Earthquake on 11 March, 2011. In Korea, it is often added to kimchi. However, due to radiation fears regarding the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear accident that occurred due to the quake, South Korea banned the import of seafood from Fukushima Prefecture and in 2013, expanded the ban to seven nearby Japanese prefectures: Ibaraki, Gunma, Miyagi, Iwate, Tochigi, Chiba and Aomori. In 2012, prior to the expanded import ban, South Korea imported 5,000 metric tons (MT) of fishery products from the eight affected prefectures, out of a total of 40,000 metric tons of seafood imports from Japan.

The ban on exports created a glut of sea pineapple. Out of production of 11,700 metric tons (MT) in 2013, about 6,900 MT were discarded. Producers were hoping for relief after the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled against South Korea’s ban, but they were disappointed when the ruling was reversed on appeal

As a result, producers are trying to increase domestic consumption through promotional campaigns. The season for harvesting sea pineapple is May to August, so most of these events take place in June. 

On 17 June, the Miyagi Hoya Fair was held in front of JR Omiya Station in Saitama City (JR is short for the railway line, the East Japan Railway Company). The Tohoku News reported that the theme of the event was "Blow away the mood after the WTO defeat." In addition to offering sea pineapple landed in Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture, about 30 different processed products were sold. The event attracted about 11,000 people. 

The Miyagi Prefectural Government’s Fisheries and Forestry Department held a promotional event with a supermarket in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s major islands. Sampling and sales took place at Hearty Nagayama Supermarket in Miyazaki City over two days: on 29 June at the fresh fish section of the Sumiyoshi store, and on 30 June at the Takao and Tohoku stores. Additional events are planned at other supermarket chains.

Daisuke Sugita, chief administrative staff of the department’s Fisheries Industry Promotion Division, told SeafoodSource that the effort is focused on Kyushu because consumers in Tokyo already have some awareness of sea pineapple, while it is unfamiliar to people in Kyushu. So the events may educate consumers about it and increase consumption. In Japan, fresh sea pineapple is usually eaten raw as sashimi by slicing the animal vertically, removing the internal organs and serving them with vinegared soy sauce (ponzu), but Sugita said that there is currently a lot of frozen sea pineapple in stock, and this is being made into various processed products that will be introduced at the event. Hoya can be enjoyed in many forms, including as sashimi, tempura, in miso soup, and in pepperoncino spaghetti, Sugita said.

Large balls of fresh sea pineapple run about four to six per kilogram. Prices from online shops are about JPY 2,000 (USD 18.52, EUR 16.30) per kilogram, while at shops in Sendai, near the source, they run about JPY 120 to 150 (USD 1.11 to 1.39, EUR 0.98 to 1.22) each. 


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