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Low Pacific catch spells continued high prices of autumn fish ahead of New Year's

A woman looks at price tags on fillets of autumn salmon at "Akidai" supermarket in Tokyo's Nerima Ward on Nov. 4, 2017. (Mainichi)

The price of autumn fish is skyrocketing due to a lack of saury, salmon, skipjack tuna, and other fish caught along the Pacific coast of Japan.

At Tokyo's iconic Tsukiji wholesale market, the price of fall salmon has risen over 60 percent. Because the low catch also affects the price of "treasure of the sea" salmon roe, it looks like ingredients for traditional New Year's dishes will hit household finances hard this year.

"I want to cook salmon in a foil pack, but I just can't bring myself to pick it up," said a 26-year-old elementary school teacher shopping at "Akidai" supermarket in Tokyo's Nerima Ward on Nov. 4, as she mulled over buying wild autumn salmon from Hokkaido or farm-raised silver salmon from Chile.

"The retail price of autumn salmon is 30 percent higher than an average year," Akidai President Hiromichi Akiba said. "When the price of seasonal fish is high, sales of vegetables bought in tandem with the fish also drop. The price of salmon roe is also two to three times higher, making it extremely difficult to put on the shelves."

According to the Hokkaido prefectural fishing industry management division, the salmon catch as of Oct. 20 in the waters off the island was 13.47 million fish, an over 30 percent decrease from the same period last year. The price for salmon during the fourth week of October (20-26) at Tsukiji was 1,123 yen per kilogram, more than 60 percent higher than in 2016. The low catch was due to a scant number of fish between 4 and 5 years old, which is when they are caught for human consumption.

The Hokkaido Research Organization Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Research Institute in the city of Eniwa reported that the low number of fish of the proper age was because of a 2 to 3 degrees Celsius drop in seawater temperature along the Hokkaido coast from 2013 to 2014, which is thought to have led to the death of a large number of the fish.

No autumn salmon also means rising salmon roe prices. The price of the roe at Tsukiji in September was an average of 6,595 yen per kilogram, up 40 percent from last year. Because of this, there have been a string of incidents of farm-raised salmon in Hokkaido being split and their roe being stolen.

The catch of Pacific saury, dinner table staple across the country, was also lower than usual. "It was more than 50 percent down from an average year," lamented a representative from the marine industry promotion department in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture. The average price for saury at Tsukiji market during the fourth week of October was 551 yen per kilogram, 30 percent higher than last year. Skipjack tuna, which travel south down the coast from Miyagi to Chiba prefectures from mid-September to the end of October, were also selling at prices over double that of the fourth week of October 2016, at 2,851 yen per kilogram.

Bigeye tuna, which make up over 30 percent of domestic tuna distribution, have also been scarce. During the fourth week of October in Tsukiji, the average amount of the fish delivered was 30 percent lower than that of the previous year at roughly 50 metric tons, and the price per kilogram was 16 percent higher than the same period last year at 1,234 yen. According to the National Research Institute of Far Seas Fisheries in Shizuoka, the scarcity of tuna is due to heightened competition among fisherman around the main harvesting areas in the Pacific Ocean near the equator.

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