Japan sardine prices up 50 percent

The supply of Japanese sardines sold at Tokyo’s Tsukiji wholesale market in June was 60 percent lower than at this time last year, while the average wholesale price is running JPY 300 (USD 2.94, EUR 2.16) to JPY 400 (USD 3.92, EUR 2.88) per kilogram up, 30 percent to 50 percent.

Prices usually drop as landings increase at this time of year, but instead the price has risen on low supplies. Sardines peaked early this year, in March and April, and since May horse mackerel catches have been strong while sardines have become scarce. Those caught generally carry plenty of fat, with average-sized fish running 100-120 grams.

The decline of Japanese sardines follows the crash of sardines in California in the fall of 2013, and like that crash may be related to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a two to three-decade cycle of faster or slower rotation of the North Pacific Gyre, which results in more or less mixture respectively of cooler deep seawater with warmer surface water. Sardines like warm water, and sardine populations can boom when warm conditions prevail. Sardines are migratory and expand their range northward quickly as the population expands.

Anchovies, conversely, like cooler water and tend to increase as sardines fall. However, they are not as migratory and do not expand their range to the extent that sardines do, so it is unlikely that they will make up for the falling biomass of sardines this year. In California, anchovies exploded in Monterey Bay last fall, but this cornucopia for whales, sea lions and fishermen was local. It did not extend all along the West Coast.

Imported sardines and anchovies are also the major source of fishmeal for the aquaculture industry. Japan imports its fishmeal and fish oil mainly from Peru, where it is made mainly from anchoveta. Though they are sometimes marketed tinned as “Peruvian Pacific sardines,” anchoveta are a type of anchovy, thus they prefer cooler waters.

Anchoveta populations are known to fall sharply in El Niño years, as this year was expected to be. Seawater off Peru was 3 degrees warmer than usual in May and early June and the anchoveta population fell and was concentrated near shore in southern Peru and in Chilean waters. The U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in early June predicted a 70 percent chance of an El Nino event in summer, rising to 80 percent in the northern fall and winter.

Peru cut quotas in expectation of an El Niño, and fishermen reported poor catches in the north and center of the country, where most of the industrial processing takes place. Peruvian fishmeal used in Japanese feed for farmed yellowtail and seabream rose sharply in price. Current FOB prices are at USD 1,880 (EUR 1,379) per metric ton (MT) for super prime fishmeal, up 15 percent from the end of April.

Japanese traders are expecting a further rise for July and August to USD 1900 (EUR 1,459) to USD 2000 (EUR 1,466) per MT. Recovery of Chilean salmon from infectious salmon anemia and of Southeast Asian shrimp from early mortality syndrome has increased demand for fishmeal, while the lower yen has weakened Japan’s buying power, making it hard to compete with other users.

On 4 July, however, fishmeal users got some relief, as the Peruvian government’s institution responsible for researching El Niño said that waters are now cooling again and that anchoveta are returning north as far the center of the country. The institute predicted this year’s El Niño would be a mild one. This news should allow prices to come down again as processing volumes recover.


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