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Japan seafood imports: U.S. up, Russia down
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By Chris Loew, SeafoodSource.com contributing editor, reporting from Osaka, Japan

King Crabs JW 318x203 

Japan’s seafood imports increased 0.3 percent year-over-year through March 2015, to about 2.11 million metric tons (MT), according to trade data released by Japanese Customs. U.S. products are gaining in market share, 13.7 percent of overall imports, a 1.4 percent increase. Compared with the previous year, seafood imports from the United States increased by 280,000 MT, a 12 percent jump, and were 15 percent higher than four years ago.

The increase is seen in Alaska pollock, surimi and salmon. A relative scarcity of whitefish in Japanese waters last year added to demand for U.S. product. Pollock is used as a raw material for many processed foods besides ordinary fishcake, such as fish sausage and chikuwa (braised fishcake tubes).

Also, strong West Coast catches of sockeye in 2014 offered Japanese buyers an alternative to high-priced Chilean coho. Piscirickettsia salmonis disease (SRS), along with Chilean government regulations limiting stocking density, had sharply restricted Coho production in Chile.

Meanwhile, Russia’s share of Japanese imports fell, because Japan, after much foot-dragging, began requiring a Russian certificate of origin for crab imports last December as part of a bilateral agreement to restrict smuggling of poached Russian king and snow crab. Imports of crab from Russia decreased about 55,000 MT, or 4 percent. Even up to the first half of 2014, Japan’s imports of Russian crab were as much as 30 times higher than shown by Russian export data, indicating that poachers directly offloaded crab to Japanese ports without landing it in Russia first for catch reporting, or trans-shipped at sea to other vessels.

Japan’s total seafood imports from Russia totaled 130,000 MT, down 13 percent year-on-year. Russia’s share of 6.5 percent was off 0.8 percentage points from four years ago. Prices of crab (averaged across all types) rose to 1,484 yen per kilogram, up 14 percent, compared to the previous year.

Including China, Asia’s volume of 1.02 million MT accounted for about 48 percent of the total import volume, down 3 percent year-on-year and 3.1 percentage points off from four years ago.

Lower shrimp production in the region due to early mortality syndrome (EMS) was to blame. Within Asia, members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which are the major producers of shrimp, saw their share of imports fall nearly 10 percent. Shrimp prices have also increased due to product shortage.

“Shrimp, prawns and lobsters” made up Japan’s largest-single category of imported seafood, constituting 13 percent of the total. The quantity, from all sources, was 158,000 MT, 16.8 percent down from last year.

Imports of seafood from the European Union were just over 58,000 MT, up 1.7 percent and accounting for a slim 0.7 percent share. However, the figures from the EU are misleading, as much of the processing is done in China, to take advantage of lower labor costs, and is then shipped to Japan as Chinese-origin product.

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