Japan’s Unsustainable Love Affair with Seafood
Seafood consumption and sustainability: observations and thoughts6 min read

We were greeted with a warm welcome when we met our host, Toshimi-san, at the train station. “What do you like to eat? I am going to show you some places around here that you can go on your own”, she told us.

“What are your recommendations?”, we responded as we leaned forward to listen as she drove, eager to embark on our journey on this port town of Wakayama Prefecture in Japan.

“Do you like sashimi? The top recommended dish here is maguro sashimi.” She beamed with delight. Raw tuna slices. I nodded silently, almost as though I was actually considering it. My heart sank, a delayed response after letting it settle.

Truth be told, I don’t particularly like eating sashimi, fish or seafood. I have heard that sashimi is an acquired taste and that it will taste better each time I give it a try. Well, I beg to differ. I have lost count of the number of times I feel obliged to eat it in group settings or when it comes in a school bento and I just do not want to let it go to waste.

“You are in Japan. What a waste that you don’t like eating sashimi or seafood!” is something I have heard many times. It is an acquired taste, I am sure, but I will probably never acquire it. And that may actually be a blessing in disguise, I suppose.

Dead tuna at Wakayama market in Japan, tagged to their owners
Tuna bodies tagged to their owners

The next morning

Watching the tuna auctions at the port market in Wakayama the next morning ended up being an extremely eye-opening and bloody experience.

Being up close to the hundreds of tuna that were laid on the floor with water running from the hoses to keep their bodies chill and hydrated, I saw auctioneers, sellers and buyers walk around with their rubber boots. They must have been so familiar with this process – assessing the bodies of the tuna and measuring their worth before deciding on a bid price.

It was a busy morning affair labelling the tunas with their auctioned prices, chopping them into pieces, packing them into wooden crates, loading them onto the trucks and then sending them to the respective restaurant owners and hotel chains. I felt my body grow increasingly numb while trying to take everything in.

Questions started racing through my mind. Does this fishing haul happen every day? How long does it take to capture all these tuna? How much do the fishermen earn per trip or per haul? What was the highest bid price during the auction? Besides tuna, what else was caught in the process? Most importantly, has the fishing haul been done using sustainable methods? Is there the risk of overfishing?

Too many seafood lovers, too little seafood

As you may already know, Japan is known for its freshest catch, tuna auctions and seafood markets brimming with life from the ocean. There is a major problem, however. The global supply is dwindling while consumer demand is disproportionately on the rise.

I vividly remember experiencing this myself during oshogatsu (New Year’s), when I visited Tokyo with my family. My parents love eating seafood, but they always save them for special occasions or when they feel like indulging themselves. For them, seafood is a treat.

It was during lunchtime when the restaurant staff informed us that they had run out of prawns shortly after she had taken our orders. I suspected that the increasing demand for prawns might have caused the spike during the festive period. Many families tuck into osechi ryori, traditional New Year’s dishes to celebrate the beginning of a new year. With that growing appetite for seafood, there wasn’t enough supply.

Japan is known for its seafood markets brimming with life from the ocean. There is a major problem, however: a growing appetite. The global supply is dwindling while consumer demand is on the rise.

If only demand and supply economics was that straightforward, though. Increasing the prices of seafood does not necessarily curb demand, especially when people are generally growing more affluent and adopting high-society lifestyles. More and more have the luxury of choice to gain access to the prized products of the ocean.

Besides, seafood tickles our senses with its alluring array of tastes and textures. When faced with something new and novel, like uni (sea urchin gonads), who wouldn’t fall for the thrill of giving our palates a new experience?

The gastronomic dilemma

To many adventurous gastronomes, Tokyo is unquestionably a food heaven. There are plenty of Michelin-starred restaurants that serve sushi and sashimi. I have a friend like that too. His main purpose of travelling to Tokyo was the plethora of food. Good food, he said, was what he was truly looking forward to in Japan. He loved having omakase (お任せ) meals in Tokyo, where he leaves it to the chef to decide what he is going to eat. He relishes the sushi and sashimi, freshly sliced and prepared under the chef’s recommendations.

Morning tuna auction proceedings in Wakayama, Japan
Morning tuna auction proceedings

“I love seafood, but I cannot eat it in Singapore every day”, he explained. “If the Japanese were to price seafood at our levels, more people would surely think twice about eating it. At the same time, I am also caught in the dilemma of eating it while knowing it might not be sustainable. I always feel this way when I am in Japan”, he continued.

Singapore’s fish and seafood market is a bit different. It is highly dominated by imports, which in turn influences the prices of seafood. Japan, on the other hand, has a competitive edge in terms of the costs and quality of seafood. Here, there is a local, lucrative fishing industry that spurs and supports the continuous cycle of seafood harvesting and aquaculture.

Around the port town

Within an hour, the market in Wakayama cleared. I started walking along the side of the port where the fishing trawlers were docked. A fisherman was cleaning and fixing the tools on board, assembling his toolkit for the next trip out to sea. I saw another washing down the rope nets before loading them back. Some others were having their mid-day break.

I continued walking around and stumbled upon the sale of kujira (鯨, whale) and maguro advertised on shop fronts and menu boards displayed in front of the restaurants. I was not sure if whale meat was served as dishes in the restaurants and I was in no position to ask, especially if I was not keen on dining in.

Alarm bells rang in my head. How is it possible that there is whale meat in these freezers? Could it be that commercial whaling has resumed? When is the peak whaling season? How many ports are they brought into?

Then, something surfaced in my mind – the whaling act that had been a highly contested issue garnering international attention and activism for years.

A whale of a problem

I cannot imagine how it will be like in the future. Japan has recently resumed its commercial whaling practice after withdrawing from the bans imposed by the International Whaling Commission. There have been claims made to revitalise the ancient culture of whaling, hoping to embrace its roots again after 31 years. All I know is that I am saddened by the news. What can I do?

Japan is a country that is steeped in its cultural traditions. How will we find a delicate balance between keeping gastronomic heritage alive and respecting the natural environment?

For a country that is steeped in its cultural traditions, it can sometimes be difficult to understand this point of view. At the same time, it is a scientific fact that traditions can put a serious strain on the environment. I hope that we will strive to do our best to find the delicate balance between keeping traditions alive and yet not upsetting the natural environment. It also takes a concerted openness for people to gain a sense of environmental consciousness and actually do something about it.

Price-elastic appetites

I was curious to better understand my friend’s stance, so I probed further. “So, if seafood in Singapore were priced like it is in Japan, would you eat it every day?”

“Of course”, he replied. “I can’t help it, it’s pocket-friendlier to eat it in Japan. I shouldn’t possibly shortchange myself, should I?” Then, he added as though sensing my growing concern, “…if it is sustainable.”

From a very practical and economical perspective of a seafood lover, or so he jokingly claims, his demand for seafood is price-elastic. That means when the price of seafood goes down, the consumption level will increase by several folds, depending on the extent of reduction.

“I am proud to say that I am shark-free since 2010”, he added.

Our conversation went along the issue of sustainability when we talked about how he will never support the consumption of shark’s fin, whales and blue-fin tuna simply because of their endangered status. That was when I started thinking more deeply about the issue of seafood and sustainability. I began wondering how sustainable our eating habits truly are for Earth and oceans, for the future generations?

I am aware that there is so little we can do, individually, with regards to conservation laws and policies, besides shedding light on these issues by raising awareness on the protection and conservation of the environment. Most likely, it’s going to be a long and tough battle, almost endless.

But I still want to try, one step at a time, one meal at a time, in hopes of a more sustainable Earth and its oceans.

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