Tsukiji air conditioning crisis puts tuna and other seafood in jeopardy in Tokyo market's final months


Seafood wholesalers are spending their last summer in Tsukiji struggling to keep their fish fresh because the market’s aging air conditioning system has malfunctioned and can’t keep up with the record heat.

Renovating the open-air facility and replacing its air conditioners is not a practical option because it will move to the new wholesale market in the adjacent Toyosu district in October.

This has left Tokyo’s world famous fish market in a crisis in its final months.

Wholesalers are beating their brains out to protect their wares from the heat. Strict temperature management is a must, particularly in the areas where frozen tuna are auctioned.

They’re trying to keep the temperature there at around 15 degrees to keep the pricey fish fresh, but the air conditioning equipment in the section stopped working properly just as the record-breaking heat wave began in mid-July.

Temperatures are now as high as 18 degrees in some places in the frozen-tuna section, even in the early morning. This has raised concern that the fish are being damaged.

To deal with this, wholesalers and trucking companies are joining hands to store frozen tuna in trucks with powerful freezing equipment until the auction site opens at 4:30 a.m.

After they are laid out for sale, the tuna are covered with sheets to help keep them frozen. Cardboard boxes are also being piled up near the market’s entrances to help keep the cool air in.

“We’re just barely able to keep the product quality” from deteriorating, said an official at one wholesaler.

The situation is more severe in the selling areas for other fish, such as mackerel, which is being exposed to outside air because there is no air conditioning. The wholesalers are thus using lots of ice and coolants to keep these fish cold.

Most of the fish handled in this space is kept in plastic foam boxes full of ice. But the ice often melts on very hot days, people at Tsukiji say.

To counter this, wholesalers add fresh ice during selling hours and even cover the boxes with ice and coolants. One wholesaler said the amount of ice his company has used to chill the fish had “nearly doubled” by this month compared with last year.

Even sample boxes that let buyers visually check the quality of fish are covered with transparent film in an effort to delay their deterioration.

“We try as much as possible to deliver fish quickly to shorten the time it stays here,” said a trader who had just bought fish.

Tsukiji’s struggle is expected to continue because weather forecasters have warned the public to prepare for further spells of scorching weather.

After more than 80 years in operation, the market is scheduled to move to Toyosu, the site of a former gas plant, on Oct. 11.

The current site is the world’s biggest fish market and a popular tourist attraction in an area packed with restaurants and shops.

Plans to move the market have been in the works for years, and the relocation was originally scheduled for 2016.

But myriad delays have set back the timeline, including the discovery of soil contamination at Toyosu.

Tsukiji opened in 1935 and is famed for its pre-dawn tuna auctions, with one fish going for more than ¥35 million at the market’s final New Year’s auction last year.