Posts Tagged ‘fishermen’

The eel deal: Sky’s the limit for unagi prices

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

More expensive than diamonds

It was only about a year ago that scientists discovered where Japanese eels, locally known as unagi, spawn. It turns out to be somewhere near the West Mariana Ridge, not far from Guam. The discovery was important because after hatching unagi fry swim north and are caught at sea in the waters off Japan, China and Taiwan. The fry are then sold to farms where they are raised until they are full-grown eels. However, since the 1970s fry catches have steadily dwindled due to overfishing and climate factors.

The discovery of the hatching grounds, which may help scientists figure out a way of better raising unagi from eggs, couldn’t have come too soon. At the moment wholesale prices for unagi are skyrocketing, threatening the livelihoods of many restaurants that specialize in eel cuisine. The owner of three eel restaurants in Tokyo was recently quoted in the Asahi Shimbun as saying that last week the price he paid for one eel increased by ¥300. That’s the eighth price increase since the year started. And he buys his unagi from China, which is usually cheaper than domestically raised eel. The wholesale price of Chinese eel has gone up fivefold in the last three years. Right now a kilogram — about five eels — costs him ¥5,800. The cheapest unaju (grilled eel on rice) in his restaurant is now ¥3,000. Though the owner has increased prices accordingly, he’s still in the red. He’s so desperate, in fact, that he’s printed the wholesale price on the menu so that customers understand why they’re paying so much all of a sudden, and he’s thinking of closing one of his restaurants. Another eel restaurateur in Nihonbashi told the Asahi that he’s already had to break into his savings to keep his establishment running. He’s reluctant to raise prices because of the current deflationary trend. “If prices go up,” he said, “more customers will turn away.”

Continue reading about unagi →

Whaling may be sunk by commercial reality

Monday, January 16th, 2012

Whale "bacon" in supermarket display case

Japan’s annual research whaling expedition is now being carried out in the Antarctic. As always, the controversy over whaling receives more coverage in the foreign press than it does in the Japanese media, which for all intents and purposes doesn’t normally pay attention unless arrests or violence is involved. However, Tokyo Shimbun last week reported on some of the commercial aspects of the issue.

According to the newspaper, in 2011 the amount of frozen whale in storage and designated for retail distribution exceeded 5,000 tons, which is almost three times the amount of frozen whale meat in storage 10 years ago. There are two sources of this meat: imports from other whale-catching countries, and the research whaling program carried out by Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research and the company Kyodo Senpaku. The purpose of the research is to “determine growth by means of checking weight and body length” of whales that are caught and killed. Afterward, the whale meat is sold to help pay for the research, which costs about ¥6 billion a year. The Japanese government provides a subsidy of ¥1 billion, which means the meat sales have to cover the remaining ¥5 billion.

The increase in frozen inventory means that the costs aren’t being covered, and that the research project is operating in the red, though Tokyo Shimbun doesn’t say by how much. Until 2006, the amount of yearly stock kept increasing because the annual catch quota was also increasing, but ever since the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society started interfering with the Antarctic hunt the amounts caught have not increased. However, overall stocks have. At the end of 2010, they amounted to 5,300 tons, and though Kyodo Senpaku only brought back 18 percent of its planned catch last year after it cut short the hunt, as of last October stocks of whale meat had increased to 5,400 tons.

Continue reading about whaling surpluses →

Small fry try to make a splash at the fishmonger

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

A fishmonger near Ueno Station

A fishmonger near Ueno Station

Japan’s voracious appetite for seafood, which, probably more than any other single factor, is blamed for the serious depletion of marine wildlife worldwide, is actually not as voracious as it used to be. In 2008, the average Japanese household consumed 36 kg of fish, down 30 percent compared to 1986. The leveling of Japan’s population has something to do with this drop, but it mainly has to do with a shift in preference toward more Western fare at the dinner table. Also, Japanese taste for fish has become more selective. Tuna sashimi remains a favorite, and salmon has even increased in popularity, something Norway and problem-plagued Chile, which export most of theirs to Japan, are grateful for. It is so-called “blue” fish, like the various species of mackerel (aji, saba, sanma, etc.) that have dipped in popularity.

Consequently, Japan’s fishing industry, not to mention its mom-and-pop fish retailers, are looking at a cloudy future, and some regional fishing cooperatives are trying to cultivate interest in zako, literally “miscellaneous fish” or “small fry” that people in the distant past may have eaten out of necessity but today’s consumers have never even heard of much less ever tasted. Fishermen in Toyama Prefecture, for instance, are catching more shiira, which in the West is known by the Hawaiian name mahi-mahi, a species that is notoriously difficult to prepare. The fishermen are not so much trying to convince housewives to buy shiira and cook it at home. Their main focus is on food companies that make kamaboko (fish cakes) and other processed seafood products. Currently, the most popular fish used for processed foods is cod, which has to be imported from Spain or Canada since Japan fished out most of its cod a long time ago. But the price of cod went way up two years ago, so companies are definitely interested in a substitute. Shiira is also increasingly being used as the fried bit of fish in convenience store bento.

Another appealing aspect of locally caught fish to food companies is that it’s cheaper to ship and store than imported fish, which has to be refrigerated for its entire journey overseas. This doesn’t necessarily help fishmongers, though, who sell directly to consumers. The trend nowadays is to buy fish that is easier to prepare — in other words, no de-boning and cleaning — and which doesn’t smell so much when you cook it. That’s why salmon is so popular and horse mackerel and squid are not. Another problem is that more and more people shop at supermarkets, which deal in volume and so prefer buying only popular fish. So far, supermarkets have shown no interest in trying to get customers interested in zako. The whole distribution structure discourages the marketing of new fish.

But zako will undoubtedly become more visible in the marketplace as overfishing of popular species becomes more of a problem. Fishermen say that there is still an abundance of seafood in the waters around Japan; it’s just that popular species are becoming more difficult to catch. If they can get people interested in a greater variety of perfectly edible fish, they may yet have a future.

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