It’s harder to find Japan’s favorite food as supply dries up

  • Sushi in Japan is facing a crisis due to rising costs and supply issues.
  • There is now a shortage of salmon and salmon roe, known as ikura.
  • Insider spoke with industry representatives about the causes and consequences of the shortages.

TOKYO, Japan — Sushi, a standard and cheaper option on the menu of Japanese restaurants, is facing a crisis in the country.

The Russian-Ukrainian war, rising costs and declining freshness have driven food prices up.

“There is currently a shortage of salmon, and ikura is in real danger,” said Yoshinobu Yoshihashi, a “naka-oroshi,” or intermediate wholesaler, at Toyosu Market in Tokyo, the country’s largest wholesale market. .

The salmon found in Japanese sushi is usually farmed salmon. Chains of conveyor belt sushi restaurants – where food is served on conveyor belts that customers take to them – often use salmon from Norway, the world’s largest producer of Atlantic salmon.

But since late February, Russia has imposed restrictions on its airspace, making it necessary to find alternative routes for flights bringing Norwegian salmon to Japan.

Yoshihashi said the salmon is now flown from Norway to Japan via Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Longer routes are more expensive and also mean the fish loses its freshness. There are also fewer flights, so supply has dropped.

“It’s difficult for us to immediately factor higher import costs into our pricing,” Yoshihashi said.

About 70% of the salmon and trout imported from Japan come from Chile, and most of it is frozen. About 20% come from Norway and 10% from Russia.

Data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries on imports and exports indicate that Japan imported about 10% less salmon and trout from January to April, compared to the same months in 2021.

But prices have risen about 15%, according to the data.

Tokyo’s Toyosu market statistics showed that the average price per kilogram of imported salmon and trout from May 2017 to 2021 was 1,624 yen, or about $12, while the average price in May 2022 was 2 121 yen, an increase of 30%.

Yoshihashi said that while business was “recovering slowly after the easing of COVID-19 restrictions,” there were still fewer people drinking late and selling expensive food was particularly difficult.

Ikura, another common sushi dish, is facing an even bigger crisis than salmon, Yoshihashi said.

Plastic containers of Ikura, also known as salmon roe.

Salmon eggs are stored in plastic containers at Toyosu Market. Salted salmon roe can also be found in higher end restaurants at a higher price.

Junya Inagaki for Insider

Ikura is a processed food made from wild salmon roe.

Shio ikura, or salted salmon roe, is the most popular type of salmon roe.

Salty ikura is available at high-end sushi restaurants. At a common sushi restaurant, ikura can be purchased for a few hundred yen. In the case of salted salmon roe, the price can exceed 1,000 yen.

Yoshihashi said the price of ikura could even double.

It has become harder to import and export, and there have also been two years of “poor fishing”, Yoshihashi said.

Salmon roe, the “raw material” for ikura, has also become increasingly difficult to obtain, which also increases the price, Yoshihashi continued.

Toyosu market statistics showed that the average price per kilogram of ikura was 7,333 yen in 2021. Between 2016 and 2020, the average price was around 5,500 yen, so prices were already increasing before the Russian-Ukrainian war.

The declining salmon population is also a serious problem, said Shunpei Sato of Japan’s Fisheries Research and Education Agency.

“Originally, there was an abundance of salmon in Russia and Alaska, but numbers were declining in Japan and Canada, which are the southern limits of salmon distribution. However, over the past two to three years , there seems to have been a drop in Russia and Alaska as well,” Sato said.

Since the 1980s, Japan has promoted a hatching and stocking program in an effort to help its salmon population rebound.

The annual national catch – which was around 50,000 tonnes, or just under 20 million fish, in the 1970s – recovered sharply in the early 1990s. At its peak, the national catch was about 80 million fish.

Then, in the 2000s, it fell back.

“The population fell sharply in the second half of the 2010s. According to 2020 data, the catch was around 50,000 tonnes. In other words, it fell to the level before the start of the program hatching and stocking of the 1970s. We are currently investigating the cause,” Sato said.

The hatching and stocking program releases approximately 1.6 to 1.8 billion juvenile salmon into the rivers each year. Salmon released into rivers travel downstream for a few days to a month and mature in the ocean. They then return to the river where they were born or released a few years later. Only a small percentage are able to return safely.

“It takes about four years for salmon to return to the river they were born in. In other words, they spend about four years at sea. I think the changes in the marine environment caused by climate change are something to think about,” Sato said.

Sushi and Ikura on a sheet.

Salmon eggs and sushi displayed on a sheet.

Junya Inagaki for Insider

While the salmon population remains low, ikura prices are expected to remain high, even if the Russian-Ukrainian war were to end.


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