Autumn’s silvery little fish, the sanma, has arrived. To officially mark the beginning of the season, the annual Meguro Sanma Festival — which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year — was held last weekend in Tokyo, where sanma were grilled and offered to a crowd of over 30,000.
Sanma (literally “autumn swordfish”) is also known as Pacific saury or mackerel pike in English. They caught off the northeastern shores of Japan as the fish annually migrates south from Hokkaido, and are one of the most prominent autumn foods in Japanese cuisine. Rich in protein and unsaturated fatty acids, sanma was traditionally eaten to prepare the body for the coming winter months.
Japan may be one of the countries that consumes the highest number of fish each year, but its self-sufficiency rate for fish products has been on a steady decline since it peaked in 1964 — the rate currently stands at around 60 percent according to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.
Sanma, however, is one of the only species sold in Japan that is entirely caught in local waters.
The country sets an annual quota for sanma in order to maintain sustainable fishing practices to protect this important resource, despite it being considered as a medium-level fishing stock, meaning it’s not particularly at risk of overfishing. For comparison, sardines, tuna and herring stocks are at low level, while flounder and sand lance are at high level.
The 2015 quota of 264,000 tons is the lowest quota ever, a 26 percent decrease from 2014. It is very rare that this quota is actually met, the annual catch is usually around 200,000 tons, although there have been exceptional years: In 2008 the catch was 350,000 tons, but in 2013 it dropped to 149,000 tons.
Japan’s quota may be decreasing each year but there is growing concern that foreign shipping vessels are catching far-higher hauls without declaring exact figures. When Japan’s catch plummeted in 2013, Taiwan recorded 182,000 tons of sanma, according to a report by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 inflicted huge damage on fishing communities, not only in the Tohoku region but stretching along the country’s Pacific coast — the area where schools of migrating sanma pass by each autumn.
Due to the loss of fishing vessels, ports and processing facilities in the quake — and the risk of contamination to the seawater — fishing in this region has all but halted over the last three years as efforts have been concentrated on reconstruction. The government has now reached its goal to replace lost vessels and many ports are expected to be rebuilt by the end of the year.
The pause in heavy fishing off the eastern coast of Japan has resulted in a complete rejuvenation of marine life. According to Associate Professor Toshio Katsukawa of Mie University fisherman are now catching the same amount of fish in 30 minutes that previously would have taken two hours. This confirms that Japan’s marine resources are rich and can remain that way with the correct level of fishing.
This season’s sanma is particularly significant as it is a symbol of the re-establishment of a fishing community that was so badly affected by the 2011 earthquake. Proof that eating abundantly available domestic fish, in season, supports both Japan’s self-sufficiency rate and the local fishing industry.
Pick up some sanma from your local fish shop and simply grill the fish whole, lightly seasoned with a pinch of salt. Serve in the skin with soy sauce and grated daikon radish on the side. Enjoy the taste of autumn and a slowly rejuvenating ocean.