Maine redfish becoming a popular commodity in Japan

Published on
November 11, 2020

Redfish, specifically of American origin, has become popular in Japan.

Japanese Customs data for 2019 shows imports of 10,780,663 kilograms of the genus Sebastes with a total value of JPY 3.3 billion (USD 31.6 million; EUR 26.6 million). Of this, the U.S. was the leading supplier, responsible for 7,861,104 kilograms valued at JPY 2.1 billion (USD 20.2 million; EUR 17 million).

Iceland followed with 1,522,474 kilograms valued at JPY 667.1 million (USD 6.4 million; EUR 5.4 million). Canada was third, with 1,397,085 kilograms valued at JPY 527.1 million (USD 5 million; EUR 4.2 million), and Greenland came next, supplying 522,768 kilograms valued at JPY 242.3 million (USD 2.3 million; EUR 2 million).

Since 2011, when data for the genus started to be separately tracked, the U.S. has always been the leading supplier.

Redfish has caught on in the last decade as a substitute for thornyhead (kinki in Japanese) in “nitsuke” preparations, where fish are simmered whole in a sauce of sake, mirin, water, soy sauce, sugar, and ginger. The size of the redfish is suitable for whole-plate presentation.

The use of the species has now expanded to many applications. Typically, redfish is prepared in a sauce or marinade, as it absorbs liquids more readily than cod. For example, Kaneshin Inc., a processor in Ishinomaki Miyagi Prefecture, offers “Japanese Sake Cake Marinated Redfish” made with U.S. redfish marinated in sake lees and mirin. U.S.-sourced redfish individually packed with broth, clams, cherry tomato, and broccoli under the Stock Kitchen brand is also being sold by Coop-Kobe delivery service (based in Kobe).

Iceland, Canada, and the U.S. (mainly Maine and Massachusetts) are the main redfish exporters. The species caught varies by location. Rosefish (Sebastes norvegicus) and deepwater redfish (Sebastes mentella) from Iceland dominate the international market for redfish – which is also called “ocean perch” in the U.S. despite belonging to the rockfish family – and serve as the benchmark for pricing. The rosefish is also referred to as the “golden redfish,” and has a lighter color than the deepwater redfish.

The Canadian catch is a mix of deepwater redfish and Acadian redfish (Sebastes fasciatus), both of which are sometimes referred to as “beaked redfish” due to the presence of a prominent tubercle on the lower jaw. U.S. product is almost all Acadian redfish from the Gulf of Maine. The Japanese market prefers the bright red color typical of the latter two species.

Ocean Choice International, based in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, was promoting redfish at Tokyo’s FOODEX show as far back as 2013, but U.S. sourced product still dominates the market in Japan.

Redfish are a long-lived, slow-growing species that are subject to wide swings in recruitment. Different areas have sporadic spikes in recruitment that then take eight to 10 years to mature. A Greenland and Iceland management plan for golden redfish for 2020 sets a total allowable catch (TAC) of 43,568 metric tons, with 5,239 for Greenland, and 39,240 for Iceland. The fishery is Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) -certified.

Since 1995, the Canadian redfish fishery has been under a moratorium in Unit 1 (Gulf of St. Lawrence), while a 2,000 MT per year index fishery has been authorized since 1999. An experimental fishery in Unit 1 was established with an additional TAC of 2,500 MT for 2018-2019 and 3,950 MT for 2019-2020, which can be harvested all year round. An increase in the stock has raised hopes of resuming commercial fishing in Unit 1 in a year or two, and various provinces and First Nations tribes are jockeying for quota allocations. There has been no moratorium on the commercial fishery in Unit 2 and the TAC has been 8,500 MT per year since 2006.  In 2010, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada designated S. mentella as endangered and S. fasciatus as threatened in both management units. A third management unit, 3LN, has a TAC of 14,200 MT and is MSC-certified.

On the U.S. side, redfish were heavily fished in 2012, but those stocks have since been rebuilt. It is currently listed as a healthy stock, according to NOAA fisheries. NOAA reports an allowable catch limit for redfish in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank of 11,208 MT.

In 2014, NOAA awarded a Saltonstall-Kennedy grant of USD 391,670 (EUR 330,021) to Cape Ann Seafood Exchange, an auction in Gloucester, Massachusetts, for capital investment in new equipment for processing redfish at its Rogers Street business. The goal was to build a sustainable fishery for Gulf of Maine-harvested redfish and to develop the capability to process and market the species to the domestic and international seafood-consuming public.

The average redfish price in the past couple months at the Portland Fish Exchange – a local auction in Portland, Maine – is around USD 0.55 to USD 0.60 per pound (EUR 1.02 to 1.11 per kilogram). The low price deters fishermen from targeting the fish. Landings and average prices reported by the Maine Department of Marine Resources show a recent declining trend from 478 MT in 2012 to around 250 MT in 2014 and 2015, and 86 MT in 2018. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) considers it an underutilized fish.

“Here at GMRI, we continue to promote redfish among the suite of underutilized species from this region," GMRI Sustainable Seafood Senior Program Manager Kyle Foley told SeafoodSource. "We do not have a specific campaign going on right now, but we work with foodservice partners in K-12 schools and colleges that are serving redfish and other underutilized products. We also work with Hannaford Supermarkets in the region, and they sell redfish, as well as Atlantic pollock and white hake, two other lesser known species in the region."

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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