Japan skipjack prices high after poor catch

Published on
October 20, 2014

Wholesale prices for skipjack tuna have doubled at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market to about 1,000 yen (USD 9.36, EUR 7.33) per kilogram, due to a decline in catches in the fourth week of September by 30 percent compared to the same period last year.

Catches by pole and line fishing, accounting for 70 percent of landings and mainly conducted off Kagoshima and Miyagi prefectures, declined by 40 percent. The seawater has been a few degrees warmer than usual, and the fish do not take bait as readily as in cooler water. Japan has in recent years been much plagued by changes of establish fish migration times and patterns. However, the harvest by the seine net fishery rose by 30 percent.

Skipjack (katsuo in Japanese) returning from migrations arrive at spawning grounds off Japan between August and October, but fishing effort has been affected by the availability of other target species. In the early season, pole and line vessels were focused on albacore, while in late September many seiners shifted to sardines and mackerel.

Returning fall skipjack are fatty and are thus suitable for sashimi. Leaner fish are often dried, fermented and shaved to produce katsuobushi, which is used to make dashi soup stock or as a topping on cold tofu, okonamiyaki and takoyaki. Skipjack are also used to make katsuotataki, seared tuna loin.

The high wholesale price has not yet filtered down to retailers, who continue to offer skipjack sashimi at last year’s level of 200 to 300 yen (USD 1.87-2.81, EUR 1.47-2.20) per 100 grams.

International prices of skipjack may rise in response to the actions of a couple of Pacific island nations. Kiribati is a member of the Pacific Island Forum Fisheries Agency, which collectively bargains with the United States for U.S. vessel access to the waters of 17 island nations. An agreement was reached in early October for access during 2015. The U.S. agreed to pay USD 90 million for fishing access of US-flagged purse seine vessels for 8,300 days in the region. It is standard practice to sell access in vessel days.

Kiribati, which holds some of the best fishing areas for tuna, was expected to offer several thousands of days, but instead offered only 300 days. The remaining days may be sold to other countries, possibly at a higher price. There were initial reports that China and Taiwan, which have poor records on their fishing practices, had bought up all of the unused days, but Kiribati authorities have denied this, saying they are in negotiations with the EU, Japan and South Korea.

Another island nation, Palau, has announced plans to halt all commercial fishing in its waters by allowing existing fishing licenses to expire without renewal. The move is intended to bolster the dive tourism industry. Shark viewing is a big attraction on dives, but sharks are a frequent by-catch of tuna fishing. Skipjack and bigeye are caught in Palau, mainly by Japanese and Taiwanese vessels, for air shipment to Japan. These operations will have to do their fishing in international waters instead.

Japan’s total imports frozen skipjack tuna in 2013 amounted to 21,190 metric tons.

Autumn is also the season for Japan’s domestic bigeye tuna, though the high water temperatures around Japan hit this fishery too. Landings in September were light, but in October they have been consistent with previous years. The wholesale price of fresh domestic bigeye at Tsukiji was 2,300 yen (USD 21.52, EUR 16.87) per kilogram, little changed from 2013. Bigeye offered frozen in Japanese stores is usually that taken abroad by distant water vessels, while fresh bigeye is landed mainly in the ports of Choshi in Chiba Prefecture, and Shiogama in Miyagi Prefecture.

Supermarkets are selling fresh bigeye at around 800 yen per 100 grams. Bigeye has largely replaced bluefin in supermarkets, except for occasions such as holidays.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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