HAKODATE, HOKKAIDO – As wholesale prices skyrocket for Pacific flying squid amid a record low catch in Japan, processing companies in the “squid town” of Hakodate, Hokkaido, are scrambling to stay afloat.
The squid shortage, caused by fluctuations in ocean temperatures, years of overfishing and lenient regulations, has seen local profits tumble.
Figures released by the city’s regional wholesale market show the haul from June to September was the lowest since collection of monthly data began in 2005, and half the amount from the same period last year.
As a countermeasure against rising prices, the city is creating incentives for squid processors through a local subsidy program in an effort to save the industry.
“I go out fishing and sometimes I can’t catch even one squid. There aren’t enough to catch anymore,” said Junichi Wakamatsu, 61, a veteran fisherman in Hakodate.
Although the season gets underway in June, only 337 tons of fresh squid reached Hakodate’s market through September, significantly below the previous low of 661 tons caught last year in the same period.
At the Hakodate Squid Festival in early October, when fans tuck into the city’s favorite squid dishes each year, some vendors were forced to close due to the shortage.
Later the same month, at the regional wholesale market, buyers bid on the scant squid stocks in a building that once housed box upon box of the fish for processing. “The prices have just shot through the roof,” lamented Satoshi Kamata, 31, of squid processor Ebisu Shokai in Hakodate.
The escalating prices have become a nationwide phenomenon.
According to the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations based in Tokyo, the average unit price per kilogram for a catch of 191,271 tons of squid in Japan’s main ports 10 years ago was ¥187 ($1.70). In the first half of this year, a haul of just 6,342 tons was priced at ¥596 per kilogram.
The Hakodate branch of Tokyo Shoko Research Ltd. estimates about 80 to 90 percent of seafood processing firms in the city are in the red. As more go bankrupt, the government and private sector are scrambling to save them from closing.
Nunome, a local processor that makes shiokara, a food made of salted, fermented squid guts, has been reducing the size of the jars and raising prices to deal with the poor catches, which started about 10 years ago. Considered one of the chinmi, or “rare tastes” of Japan, the snack, often enjoyed with sake or rice, was cheap in its heyday.
“The purchase price for our stock of squid has quadrupled. Shiokara used to be an inexpensive food but now it’s a luxury item,” said Nunome President Yoshio Ishiguro, 73.
To add value to its offering, the company uses top-quality squid, which is increasingly hard to procure, and sells a 200-gram jar for ¥1,200, not including tax.
Elsewhere, through the subsidy program it launched in 2018, Hakodate has been trying to entice processors to switch to alternatives. The city covers as much as half the expenses needed to buy machinery and develop new offerings.
Ichiyo Suisan, established nearly 130 years ago, recently bought a mackerel-cutting machine under the subsidy program to process other marine produce for the first time.
“The wholesale price of squid is more expensive but if we raise our prices, it won’t sell,” said Ichiyo Suisan President Shuichi Shimazaki, 62. “If we continue in that fashion the business will gradually go under, so we decided to try other fish products as well.”