Japan octopus prices up on short West African supply

Published on
July 17, 2014

A 45 percent decline in supply is pushing prices of octopus in Japan 50 to 60 percent higher than the same time period last year.

In May, the volume of frozen uncooked octopus sold at public wholesale auctions in Tokyo was down 16 percent, while the price was up 30 percent from the same month in 2013. Now, the wholesale price of common octopus has climbed 50-60 percent to JPY 1,500 (USD 14.81, EUR 10.95) to JPY 1,600 (USD 15.80, EUR 11.68) compared to a year ago.

Traditionally, supermarkets sell octopus in three forms: a single boiled tentacle; sashimi slices; and in a vinegared salad of cucumber, octopus and wakame seaweed. Boiled octopus sashimi is selling at most Tokyo supermarkets at JPY 300-350 (USD 2.96-USD 3.46, EUR 2.19-EUR 2.56) per 100 grams, though some shops that secured supply before price hikes have offered bargains as low as JPY 200 (USD 1.97, EUR 1.46). Boiled Morocco-origin tentacles could be found in Osaka in mid-July at JPY 258 (USD 2.55, EUR 1.88) per 100 grams (slices sell higher than whole tentacles).

In April and May, biological rest periods for the octopus fisheries in Morocco and Mauritania — Japan’s top octopus suppliers — mean decreased exports. According to Japanese customs data, imports of all varieties and products of octopus in the month of May were 2,870 metric tons (MT), a 45 percent decline from the same month last year. Of that volume, 1,982 MT, or 69 percent, came from Western Africa and Spain.

For January through May, Morocco was Japan’s top source, at 8,481,442 kg. Mauritania, which used to compete for overall volume with Morocco and was previously Japan’s biggest supplier, was Japan’s second-ranked source for the period, at 4,705,024 kg. China and Vietnam shipped 2,796,934 and 1,147,518 kg respectively to Japan, making them the third- and fourth-ranked sources. Supplies in the latter two countries are showing signs of overfishing, though management data is too sparse to make definite conclusions.

Spain supplied Japan with a paltry 39,936 kg. Customs records show only 147,531 kg as imported from Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony now occupied and annexed by Morocco. However, much of the Moroccan catch is actually fished off the disputed territory, though exported as Moroccan product.

In past years, Spanish vessels, mainly out of Galicia, fished for octopus off both Morocco and Mauritania under separate fisheries agreements. Re-approving these agreements has been contentious.

In the case of Morocco, the EU Budget Committee, which reviewed the proposed agreement, noted that the unsustainable fishing practices of several species, including octopus, was counter to an EU policy rule that only surplus stock be fished. Additionally, the propriety of Morocco allocating fishing rights in Western Sahara, a territory over which the UN does not recognize its sovereignty, has been problematic. Yet, the EU did approve the pact on 10 December 2013.

In the case of Mauritania, when the agreement was renewed in 2013, EU vessels were excluded from the octopus fishery due to a lack of surplus, and because any potential surplus is likely to be within the capacity of the Mauritanian fleet.

This exclusion was contested by Spain, which maintained that recent surveys indicated there was surplus, and which also noted that reflagged foreign vessels will not be excluded. Spain was particularly upset about Chinese vessels, but reflagged Spanish vessels also constitute about an eighth of the reflagged foreign vessels. Several Spanish Ministers of European Parliament argued against ratifying the agreement, but the European Parliament on 8 October approved the new Fisheries Partnership Agreement EU/Mauritania with 467 votes in favor, 154 against, and 28 abstentions. The agreement was negotiated taking into account new rules on sustainability and fairness adopted as policy by the European Parliament. This resulted in restricted catches and higher payments a license fees.

Under the protocol approved 8 October 2013, EU fishing vessels are allowed to catch various species of fish and shellfish in Mauritanian waters in exchange for an EU payment of EUR 70 million (USD 95 million) per year, of which EUR 3 million (USD 4.1 million) is development aid for the local fisheries sector. Seven EU countries have access under the protocol. The agreement is the biggest of the EU’s fisheries agreements in volume, variety of fisheries products and financial contribution, but octopus is not included.

Spain is now asking the EU to secure access to new octopus fishing grounds, perhaps in the African nations of Guinea Bissau or Guinea. What Spain does have access to mostly finds a home in the EU. European demand has been strong, while Japan buying power has been eroded by the weak yen.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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