Japanese saury imports to hit record

Published on
June 9, 2011

Japan, which is usually self-sufficient in Pacific saury, is set to import a record amount of the fish this year.

The Sanriku-Johban coast of the Tohoku region, hit by the 11 March tsunami, was Japan’s main Pacific saury fishing area. The destroyed port of Kesennuma had the country’s highest landings.

There were about 46,000 metric tons of domestic saury in cold storage at the end of February, but the Fisheries Agency estimates that 20,000 metric tons was lost to the tsunami. The tsunami also destroyed 43 of the 60 saury fishing vessels that usually operate in the area. 

To avoid a shortage, the Japanese government has set a record-high import quota for Pacific saury. The quota of 11,800 metric tons for the fiscal year beginning April 2011 is roughly triple the 3,520 metric tons actually imported last fiscal year. The quota will be divided among importers, with the product coming mainly from China and Taiwan.

To protect the domestic fishing industry, Japan sets quotas restricting imports of 19 types of seafood products. In the past, Pacific saury has shared a quota with yellowtail, scallops and dried sardines. This year, as an emergency measure, the government has set a separate quota for saury.

Pacific saury catches fluctuate widely by year, depending on the weather and other factors. In fiscal 2009, catches were abundant, reaching some 300,000 metric tons, with imports at just 80 metric tons. In fiscal 2010, only about 200,000 metric tons were caught, as unseasonably warm ocean waters kept the fish well offshore in deep water, and to the north of Hokkaido. Prices for saury were high and imports rose to 3,520 metric tons. This year may be equally high. Fresh saury is not yet in season, so prices are still based on the fiscal 2010 catch.

Tuna fishing has already begun in the Kesennuma area, but the vessels are calling at smaller nearby ports that were less severely damaged, because there is little cold storage or bait available in Kesennuma. City leaders worry that the boats may become permanently based in other towns, leaving Kesennuma without an economy once it rebuilds.

Meanwhile, fishermen in Hokkaido are growing concerned that a glut of salmon will drive prices down, as export demand is dampened by radiation fears. The Hokkaido autumn salmon catch is 120,000 to 150,000 metric tons annually, 40 percent of which is exported.

Much of Japan’s salmon exports have been processed in China to cut labor costs. But in early April, China effectively stopped importation of seafood from Japan by demanding a Japanese government certification that the product has been tested and found radiation-free. The national government does not currently issue such documents.

Instead of depending on exports to avoid a glut, local fisheries officials will seek keep a large amount in cold storage and to boost household consumption with easy-to-use cuts.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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