Toyosu sales figures reveal crippling effect of COVID-19 on Japan’s seafood market

Published on
May 4, 2020

Tokyo’s Toyosu Market is experiencing a drastic financial fallout as Japan reels from the economic shock of COVID-19.

From March to April, both the volume of seafood Japan’s largest seafood market handled and the prices it received had nosedived. But the crash has been uneven, reflecting a shift by Japanese consumers from eating out to cooking at home. Sales of luxury items like tuna have dropped significantly, while sales of fish more commonly cooked inside the home in Japan, such as salmon and hamachi, have not seen a significant falloff.

Fresh product has been more strongly affected than frozen, since the latter can be held until market conditions improve. The volume of frozen bluefin sold at Toyosu from all sources fell from 12,788 to 3,986 kilograms, or 69 percent, but prices were not as much affected as for fresh, declining just 16 percent, from JPY 3,111 (USD 28.93, EUR 26.72) to JPY 2,624 (USD 24.40, EUR 22.54).

In a comparison of 17 April, 2020, with 19 April, 2019 – a fairly equivalent date as both were the third Friday of the month – the volume of fresh bluefin handled at Toyosu declined by 71.3 percent. Prices also fell sharply, though different origins of the product may explain some of the price difference. Last year, Wakayama-sourced bluefin averaged JPY 10,620 (USD 98.77, EUR 91.21). This year, Nagasaki source product averaged JPY 2,765 (USD 25.72, EUR 23.75), a fall of 74 percent.

The market sold no fresh southern bluefin on 17 April, 2020, though it had handled 3,698 kilograms on the day a year earlier. Frozen southern bluefin sales fell from 18,374 to 3,015 kilograms or 84 percent, while the price dropped by 45 percent. Farmed southern bluefin is all imported, but currently all chilled airfreighted imports are strongly affected by the suspension of most passenger flights into Japan and the resulting loss of cargo space. That has resulted in plummeting seafood imports into the country.

Fresh bigeye volume declined by a whopping 93 percent, and the price fell by 36 percent. But for frozen, the volume was 56.6 percent that of last year, and the price fell by 16 percent.

These are all items that are mostly served in restaurants. While not required to close, restaurants in Japan have been asked by the government to cease operations by 8 p.m. and to stop alcohol sales by 7 p.m. as a method of limiting spread of the coronavirus. Restaurant traffic has bene estimated at about one-tenth of what is typical at this time of year.

Other types of seafood, especially those popular for home cooking, which can be found and bought easily in supermarkets, less affected.

Farmed hamachi, or yellowtail, is usually sold at fairly consistent prices throughout the year. On 17 April, 2020, the fresh price averaged JPY 918 (USD 8.57, EUR 7.91) for Kagoshima Prefecture product, down by 6 percent, and JPY 1,269 (USD 11.85, EUR 10.94) for other origins, up 1 percent , on volume of 18,263 kilograms, up 21 percent. Though also served at high-end shops, farmed yellowtail is common in reasonably-priced supermarket sashimi sets.

For salted salmon – popular for home grilling as a breakfast item – the volume was off by 36 percent, but prices were up by 9 percent, at JPY 1,620 (USD 15.13, EUR 13.94) per kilogram. The volume of frozen mackerel, another grilling item, was off by 65 percent, but prices were unchanged. Japanese home gas ranges have a built-in fish broiler, making grilled fish an easy dish to prepare at home.

Shogo Kamiji, the owner of Kamiji Shoten, which deals in salted salmon at the Osaka Central Wholesale Market, told SeafoodSource his sales, mostly to supermarkets, are up in both volume and price, though prices are down a bit compared with levels of a few years ago.

“People eat at home now, so supermarket sales are up, but the restaurant business is mostly gone,” he said.

The price of fresh sea urchin roe (uni) had fallen by almost half, from JPY 4,500 (USD 42.23, EUR 38.93) to JPY 2,500 (USD 23.46, EUR 23.47) per kilogram, Kamiji said.  And hotaru ika – firefly squid, also called “glowbelly” or “lanternbelly” – which is currently in season can also be found at bargain prices. Kamiji said that a pack containing three to five fresh squid used to sell in Osaka for JPY 900 to 1,000 (USD 8.45 to USD 9.38, EUR 7.78 to EUR 8.65), but now sells for about JPY 600 (USD 5.63, EUR 5.19) or JPY 200 (USD 1.88, EUR 1.73) each.

Toyosu market remains open, though only authorized traders are allowed entry. Tours have been canceled and visitors have been banned from the viewing platforms and the restaurants at Toyosu until at least 6 May, the end of the Golden Week holiday. As the number of new coronavirus cases in Tokyo continues high, it is likely that this will continue, though so far, there have not been any cases of COVID-19 among the workers at the auction.

Kamiji said Osaka traders dealing in high-end fresh fish can’t make a living at current volumes and prices.

“They are gradually closing. I come to the market each day wondering which shop will be closed today,” he said. “Tomorrow, a few more will be closed.”

Photo courtesy of vichie81/Shutterstock

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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