TOKYO -- This year's haul for a fish typically served in Japan in fall is shaping up to be the worst in nearly five decades.
Only about 46,000 tons of Pacific saury were caught in Japan this year to Oct. 31, half as much as at the same point last year, data from a Tokyo-based saury fishery group shows.
When saury fishing season ends Nov. 30, the volume could undershoot the 52,000 tons caught in 1969. Last year's harvest of 109,000 tons was the smallest since 1976, when only 98,000 tons were caught.
Meanwhile, the body mass of the long, silvery fish -- known as sanma in Japan -- has shrunk from previous years. Saury caught in 2016 mostly weighed 150 grams each, but this year's average size amounted to around 120-130 grams.
The harvest is so meager that there has been a "scramble" for saury, said a seafood processor in Hokkaido, the northern island whose waters produce much of the fish. In major fishing regions, wholesale prices for 1kg of saury shot up 50% from last year to around 350 yen ($3.08). Wholesale prices at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market stood at about 500 yen per kilogram at the beginning of this month, or 30-40% higher than a year earlier.
At Tokyo fish sellers, it is common to see saury priced for 200 yen to 300 yen apiece, or 30-40% more than last year. "On top of that, they are scrawny with little fat content, so we're having a tough time selling them," said a store manager.
Tokyo-based seafood processor Maruha Nichiro is raising prices of canned saury, and rivals are considering similar moves.
Changes in ocean temperature and overfishing have been blamed for the decline in wild catches. Saury fishing was once limited to coastal waters in certain parts of Japan and Russia, but now Taiwanese and Chinese fishing ships have joined in and broaden their search to the open ocean. Previous years' catches may have depleted the stock of egg-bearing adult fish.
A study conduct before the saury season had pointed to a decline of about half from last year's haul, says Satoshi Suyama of the Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency, "but we didn't think the catch would be this bad."