Wholesale prices for popular frozen bigeye tuna, widely seen at supermarkets and kaitenzushi (conveyor-belt sushi restaurants) throughout Japan, are surging amid poor catches and tough international fishing regulations.
Wholesalers and retailers are concerned that low-priced tuna will become unavailable in the country. Bigeye tuna has long held a major presence in the price segment on the back of abundant supply and therefore lacks substitutes.
Bigeye tuna has less fat than bluefin tuna, a prized delicacy often served at high-end sushi restaurants, but is popular in Tokyo and other parts of the Kanto region and also in the Tohoku region due to its bright red flesh. It is also used in processed food, including negitoro (minced fatty tuna).
Bigeye tuna is sourced from around the world. But catches have plunged over the past two years, reflecting poor hauls in the Pacific Ocean and stricter regulations in the Indian Ocean.
The amount shipped to Tokyo’s Tsukiji wholesale market last month fell some 30 percent from a year before, about half the level in 2012 and before, when the market had a plentiful supply.
Tsukiji’s auctions once processed more than 1,000 bigeye tuna a day, but it now has fewer than 600 on an average day.
“My voice used to go hoarse after long auctions. Nowadays, trading ends quickly,” one Tsukiji wholesale dealer said.
In September, per-kilogram wholesale prices for mainstay bigeye tuna of more than 40 kg were around ¥1,150, up about 20 percent from a year earlier. Low-rated bigeye tuna of the same size saw increases of about 50 percent to ¥950.
The impact has also been felt at the retail level.
Supermarkets and other retailers no longer frequently sell bigeye tuna at special discounts. An official at a major kaitenzushi chain noted the difficulties of making any profit with tuna.
Tuna sellers tried to increase sales of yellowfin tuna as a substitute but had to give up the idea. The fish is “also facing price rises as it is popular in the Chubu and Kansai regions,” a Tsukiji wholesale company official said.
Albacore tuna, used to make canned products, was also considered as a bigeye tuna substitute, but the idea may not get off the ground because its flesh is pink, not red, the official said.
With no key substitute, the shortage of bigeye tuna is likely to escalate during the autumn months, when demand rises, causing retail prices to increase around the turn of the year.