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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Busy auctions mask Tsukiji decline

Famous fish market threatened by shift in economic, dietary trends

Staff writer

Around 5 a.m., the opening bell signaled the start of the auction at Tokyo's Tsukiji Central Fish Market. Lining the floor were hundreds of tunas, tagged with their point of origin — Guam, Australia and Katsuura, Chiba Prefecture. As the sellers called out each fish's number, buyers raised their hands to offer a price.

News photo
Going, going . . .: Wholesalers inspect tuna during an auction at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo in April. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

German tourist Antje Vries, 28, was eagerly photographing the scene. "Everyone in the world knows (about Tsukiji)," she said.

Regarded as the world's largest fish market, Tsukiji's tuna auction attracted as many as 600 foreign tourists a day before a monthlong ban was imposed in early April to reduce the influx of tourists in spring. The auctions will open to the public again on Monday.

Nevertheless, behind its lively exterior, Tsukiji is in decline. Its famous auctions may soon be a thing of the past. The volume of marine products it handles has been falling as retailers shift away from procurement via wholesalers or middlemen at Tsukiji. Meanwhile, more and more Japanese are choosing to eat meat rather than fish.

According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the volume of marine products handled at Tsukiji peaked in 1987 at 814,995 tons. By 2009 it had declined to 543,644 tons, down 33 percent.

Fisheries Agency and market officials say such retailers as restaurants and supermarkets are increasingly buying fish directly from fishermen or trading companies. In 2006, just 62.1 percent of fishery products were traded through wholesale markets like Tsukiji, down from 75 percent in 1989, according to farm ministry data.

"In other words, more fish are traded outside the wholesale market nowadays," said a Fisheries Agency official.

Starting about 20 years ago, a major supermarket chain based in Fukushima began directly buying from producers and trading companies. Now it buys nearly half its fish from outside the wholesale markets.

"If we purchase fish via (wholesale) markets, it would be more costly," an official at the major retailer said on condition of anonymity. In addition, the fish are apt to lose their freshness during the trip from the markets, the official said.

"It is better for us to directly bring in (fish) from producers to our (distribution) center," he said.

Even among the retailers still using Tsukiji, things are changing.

Despite their popularity with tourists, few retailers participate in the fish auctions anymore. Instead, many buy directly from wholesalers in one-to-one negotiated transactions called "aitai torihiki."

Because prices can be driven up high at auction, this method allows retailers to negotiate with sellers directly to secure lower prices.

More and more have adopted this method over the past decades. In 2008, 84 percent of all the transactions at the Tsukiji, Adachi and Ota markets in Tokyo were done this way rather than by auction. Twenty years ago the figure was 61 percent, Tsukiji officials said.

The Fukushima-based retailer said it purchases tuna through auctions but other marine produce through contracts.

Another reason for Tsukiji's decline is believed to be Japan's changing diet: Various government surveys show that fish, long a national staple, is becoming less popular.

According to a health ministry survey from 1997 to 2007, daily fish intake per capita has been on the decline.

Until 2005, more people said they were eating more fish than meat. But in 2006 the trend reversed, boosting daily meat intake in 2007 to 82.6 grams, compared with 80.2 grams for fish and shellfish. The shift affected all generations.

Citing a survey result, a 2008 report by the Fisheries Agency points out that children dislike fish because of the bones and the time it takes to eat. The smell puts them off, too.

As the number of single-person households and working couples rose over the years, the report said the time people spend on cooking has sharply dropped.

"People tend to avoid fish and shellfish, which are regarded as difficult to cook," the report said, adding 60 percent of 321 female university students surveyed in 2008 responded that they have never filleted a fish.

On the back of Tsukiji's fall, intermediate wholesalers are suffering from the dwindling business and closing down.

The number of middlemen based at Tsukiji has fallen 29 percent in the past two decades, shrinking to 762 in 2008. Those sticking it out are having a tough time. Forty-four percent of Tsukiji's middlemen were operating in the red in 2008 and 46 percent reported that liabilities exceeded assets.

"We are in a real severe situation. It is like a survival game now," said Kenji Ando, a Tsukiji-based middleman and an executive of Wholesales Co-operative of Tokyo Fish Market. "Probably, more and more will disappear. We are in an extremely difficult situation."

Yet, Ando stressed the importance of auctions and said that Tsukiji must continue holding them. He believes the professionals he represents will still be needed to scrutinize the quality of fish for discriminating consumers.

"Some fish are definitely different from others. . . . You can't tell the quality by just looking at the fish's surface. (Professional eyes) are definitely necessary," Ando said. "We must keep auctions and they will undoubtedly remain."

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