TSURUGA, Fukui Pref. – Once plentiful in Wakasa Bay, mackerel catches have fallen drastically in recent years, pushing up prices and prompting research into raising the fish artificially.
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the annual catch in Fukui Prefecture was more than 1,000 tons, but around 1990 the numbers began to drop, reaching an all-time low of 54 tons in 2004. It was 154 tons in 2005.
“There used to be mackerel weighing more than 1 kg, like a young yellowtail. It is sad that mackerel, once always on the table, are decreasing in numbers,” said Noboru Hattori, 70, a fisherman from the city of Obama who has been fishing in Wakasa Bay for more than 50 years.
Fishing industry sources said rises in seawater temperature are to blame for the drop in the mackerel catch in the bay. Instead, Spanish mackerel and other fish normally found far from shore are now increasingly being caught there.
Because of the decline in the catch, the price of mackerel is soaring, and a large mackerel weighing more than 500 grams cost 1,300 yen to 1,500 yen — about the same price by weight as traditionally more expensive fish such as tuna and sea bream.
As a result, cheap mackerel imported from Norway has replaced the local fish in a salted rice-bran paste that is a popular Wakasa souvenir food item.
Although the Norway mackerel is suitably fatty, the taste for mackerel caught in Wakasa Bay is deep-rooted.
“If eaten raw, the delicious taste of refreshing fat spreads in the mouth, and if baked, you can’t resist the marvelous taste. You can enjoy various tastes, a bit different from imports,” said innkeeper Kinji Yoshida.
Mackerel and other fishery products used to be carried from Wakasa to Kyoto via the so-called Mackerel Road. The road got its name after World War II, but was used as long ago as the Nara Period (710-784) to transport fish to Nara’s Heijo Palace.
To revive the mackerel stocks, Tadahisa Seikai, a professor of biological resources at Fukui Prefectural University, has begun studying ways to artificially raise the fish.
Seikai succeeded in coaxing mackerel in the bay to spawn by injecting them with hormones. Hundreds of thousands of fry, given plankton and assorted feed, grew to a length of about 10 cm in a month and a half.
Since last July, Seikai has persuaded local globefish aquaculturists to raise about 3,000 of the fry at their preserves at sea. These fish now weigh about 300 grams each, and are expected to reach 500 grams by summer.
The professor asked five chefs at French and Japanese restaurants in Kyoto to prepare the farmed mackerel and was told the quality of the fat was better than expected.
“Mackerel grow fast and are suited to farming. We would like to raise mackerel so their fresh taste can be enjoyed at reasonable prices,” Seikai said.