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Economy

Japan pays more for bigeye tuna as boats make beeline for China

Supply-demand swings narrow price gap with typically costlier bluefin

Frozen tuna are auctioned at the Tsukiji market in Tokyo.

TOKYO -- An affordable variety of tuna is increasingly expensive in Japan because of supply disruptions, while a premium species is becoming cheaper.

January's wholesale price for frozen bigeye -- a type of tuna often sold at supermarkets and served at conveyor belt sushi restaurants -- averaged 1,207 yen ($10.71) per kilogram at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, up roughly 10% from a year earlier. The price has stayed about the same in February.

The market handled 1,146 tons of frozen bigeye in January, down 7.2% from the same month a year ago. Reduced supply from Chinese fishing boats was the culprit. Supplies have not kept up with demand.

Chinese fishing vessels used to customarily unload their catch at ports in Japan, the biggest consumer of bigeye. But since last year, the boats have been increasingly unloading at Chinese ports -- either for consumption within China, or shipment to Europe after processing. The changes may stem from Chinese government efforts to increase employment in the fisheries industry.

Bluefin tuna, often served in more expensive eateries, has been declining in price. In January, wholesale prices averaged 3,156 yen per kilogram for frozen bluefin -- down about 20% on the year -- as supply soared 90% to 352 tons. Tuna farms in Japan and abroad have boosted supply, says a seafood trading company staffer. Meanwhile, demand has been lackluster because many consumers feel that the retail price of over 1,000 yen per 100 grams is expensive compared with 400 yen to 500 yen for bigeye tuna.

The wholesale price difference between the two kinds of tuna was 1,949 yen in January, about 30% less than a year earlier.

On some days, the average price for fresh bluefin -- which fluctuates widely according to supply -- has been far lower than the highest price for frozen bigeye. The hierarchy of tuna species is beginning to change, says a source at wholesaler Chuo Gyorui.

In March, the supply of bigeye tuna is expected to rise temporarily as fishing boats return. But it would take some time to resolve chronic supply shortages, keeping the price high. The price gap between bluefin and bigeye may narrow further.

(Nikkei)

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