AOMORI - Every year, tuna hauled in at the small town of Oma in Aomori Prefecture, dubbed “black diamonds” for their value and color, make headlines as they fetch millions of yen at the Tsukiji fish market auction at the start of the year.
This year, a 212-kg Oma maguro (tuna) fetched ¥74.2 million ($650,000) — the second-highest price on record. Other Oma brand tuna have also sold for several million yen each, including one that fetched an all-time high ¥155.40 million in 2013.
Fishermen from towns other than Oma also catch tuna in the Tsugaru Strait.
But it’s the Oma tuna that are priced about 20 percent higher than other catches
Oma tuna have long been sold to high-end Japanese restaurants. In addition, Oma has become a national brand thanks to the 1983 movie “Gyoei no Mure” (“The Catch”), featuring tuna fishermen from the town.
The local fisheries cooperative has also helped create the Oma brand, devising methods of maintaining the freshness of the fish, such as removing blood and nerves immediately after they are hauled in.
Masahiro Takeuchi, a 65-year-old long-line fisherman, caught the tuna that fetched ¥74.20 million and is one of the few fishermen who have been exceptionally successful.
“I thought it would fetch a high price because of its shape and fat,” he said.
Local fishermen use long-line fishing or single-hook, hand-line fishing methods to catch tuna.
If a tuna sells for ¥70 million, the fisherman earns more than ¥30 million after the deduction of transport costs, fees to a fisheries cooperative, taxes and other costs.
The fishing season for tuna in the narrow Tsugaru Strait extends from July to January when the predatory fish come to the passage to chase squid.
Takeuchi caught roughly 100 tuna, including a 300-kg fish, in the just-ended season. “I will rest and relax until the next season,” he said.
Based on the prices, it would be safe to assume that the 100 fishermen in Oma, which has a population of 5,600, ply a lucrative trade.
But in reality, only a few can make a living catching just Oma tuna.
They cannot afford the big boats needed to operate in stormy waters and some catch only two to three tuna per fishing season.
To make a living, they set out to sea almost all year-round to catch cheaper squid and octopus that are readily available.
But that doesn’t discourage them from dreaming about a tuna jackpot.
“Even if I cannot catch a lot, I continue to sail out to the sea,” a squid fisherman in his 40s said. “It gives you a chance to dream for the jackpot.”