Japan Disaster Disrupts Global Seafood Industry

Japan has become an important missing link in the global seafood distribution chain, causing disruptions around the world.
Japan has become an important missing link in the global seafood distribution chain, causing disruptions around the world.

Reverberations from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan are shaking up at least one part of the food industry -- and, no, it's not because of nuclear radiation. The country plays a huge role in the fish market, both as a buyer and processor. So the destruction there is taking its toll on the fish industry around the world.

Some examples? An important annual Seattle auction for pollock roe, scheduled for last week, was canceled because Japanese buyers couldn't get there. The famous Tsukiji Fish market auction was closed last week, due to "Tokyo restaurants... not buying fresh fish because of a lack of customers," according to the AFP, and remains closed to tourists.

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Japan is a key market for fish, importing $750 million of fish products from the U.S. alone -- one-fifth of the U.S. export market in 2009, according to the Journal of Commerce. But much of that has halted: While Californians dither about whether their sushi is contaminated with radiation from the deteriorating Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant (it isn't, says the FDA, although milk from cows grazing near the power plant may be quite dangerous), many Japanese people in the northern prefectures are going hungry.

It's not just the tainted milk and spinach; it's the lack of infrastructure. Ports in the three prefectures of Tohoku region -- Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima -- make up five of the 10 top landing ports in Japan, and the damage to the fisheries and aquaculture production serving these ports could reach 100 billion yen ($1.3 billion) per year. Sendai, which was the main port of entry for fisheries in Alaska, Washington and Oregon, and other ports have been damaged beyond any immediate solutions and the roads are impassable in many areas and fuel is being rationed.

Missing Link in the Distribution Chain

The country is not likely to stop buying fish in the long term. The Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, which exports 40% of its crab to Japan, doesn't expect to see lower demand once its season begins in September. But in the meantime, the unusual structure of the global seafood market has been thoroughly disrupted.

Routinely, fish caught in one part of the world travels many thousands of miles to processing facilities in Japan and China -- Alaskan pollock, flatfish and other products are sent to Sendai, where Nippon Suisan's processing facilities have all been destroyed -- before traveling to end markets in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere. Some of the fish even makes another stop at a separate factory, where it becomes fish sticks, Filet-o-Fish or some low-fat frozen entree to be eaten at the desks of American office workers.

The challenges stemming from Japan's part in this distribution chain have put a damper on an otherwise upbeat mood at the Boston seafood show this week. As John Sackton, editor of trade publication Seafood.com News, reports, "it is becoming clearer that nuclear impacts on marine life are virtually non-existent, but that distribution problems are growing. On Monday, there was plenty of fish at the Tsukiji market, but some could not be sold due to distribution problems."

Waiting at the Docks

The U.S. is not, of course, the only country suffering uncertainty as the people of Japan assess the damage caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Indonesia is facing a number of depressed export markets, from rubber to crude palm oil, although its biggest-hit export market may well be Bali's tuna exports. Last year, 20,000 of the port's 34,000 tons of tuna went to Japan; for at least the next two months, exports are expected to fall dramatically.

And what of the fish, pork and beef that's already made its way to Japan? Many products were already en route to the country, either to be consumed or to be processed, when the earthquake hit. As a result, container ships sit in limbo, still waiting to be unloaded. Because of Japan's fractured electric grid, companies fear that the tons of meat -- in particular -- could end up spoiling if the electricity fails, according to a story in The New York Times.

For now, U.S. exporters are not giving up on their markets in Japan. But they are remaining wary, concerned with the possibility of spoilage, disrupted supply chains and the flow of money away from luxury products, like pollock roe and oysters, and into disaster relief. Japanese people are still hungry for fish, but the delicate balance of the international seafood web has been set to wobbling and adjustments will be needed. So while the future of fish may be bright, the haze of Japan's destruction is making it hard to see clearly.