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.

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.

A
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.

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John

Well I hate to say it but Fish stocks will get a breather for a bit and have a chance to rebuild thier populations. Unlike the U.S. Japan has no catch limits nor minimum net mesh size to let smaller fish escape to grow. When a Jap Trawler goes through an area they leave nothing behind but an empty 200 yard wide by 10 mile strip of mud.

March 23 2011 at 1:03 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to John's comment
aikonca

About 20% of the fishing boats and ships in the Sendai area set out to sea and were not damaged. Another 20% remained attached to there concrete piers with out damage. And most of the rest was sweept inland, but not damaged; The are being crane lifted and put back in the sea.

The rest of the Japanese fishing fleet has taken up the slack. Last week, the amount of fish in the giant Tokyo fish market was 24% higher than normal. And it is running even higher this week. There is absolutely no shortage of fish. The waters around Japan and South Korea have an extreme over abundance of fish. Unfortunately, that is not the case in the greatly over fished waters of China, the U.S.A. and the Mediterranean.

March 23 2011 at 7:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dear MoonWolf

Nice to see so many like-minded people on here, sympathetic to the plight of the non-human animals with whom we share the most MIRACULOUS planet in the known universe! Refreshing to hear more than egocentric human thinking! WHEW! ';-)

March 22 2011 at 2:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
David

good the fish need a break...Japan has been over fishing tuna,sharks,whales and many more. No one could get them to stop, until now. This earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan is so bad and I feel sorry for all the pain, suffering and loss of life I pray for all of them.

DAVID

March 22 2011 at 2:20 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
orchidad

What fish from the sea of Japan,,, that was fished out 20 plus years ago, try the fish from Alaska and much closer to home...At least the fish and whales might have a chance to regain their numbers. The big problem is the huge population of humboldt squid that are increasing in huge numbers because the Japanese have been harvesting so many of the squids predators...This is way more serious than has been revealed to the public....

March 22 2011 at 2:20 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
jeffsmithharley

maybe a good time for the fish industry to take a one year break and let the the sea life populate. we are over harvesting the fish anyways

March 22 2011 at 1:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
walkin07

Time to cut out the middle man: How about American Canneries or Canadian? "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."

March 22 2011 at 1:53 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
sharpella

Fish from the Sea of Japan has always been a hot item in the supermarket. People lined up to by their fish. Now consumers may not be lining up to buy their fish for the possibility that it, might,in fact, be a hot item.

March 22 2011 at 1:37 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
db

thank god maybe now these bastards will leave our Tuna alone. Should have earthquake once a year if you ask me. Maybe then our seafood would not become depleted. Just think about all the happy sharks that could be swimming around with all their fins. Japanese will destroy or deplete anything they want look at the whales so, now you might say God has depleted some of them.

March 22 2011 at 12:50 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to db's comment
Dear MoonWolf

Amen.

March 22 2011 at 12:52 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Ray

Hawaiian Ahi Bigeye & Yellowfin #1+ Tokyo GradeLB $24.95 (This is current market pricing from the auction on the bigf island.

I paid 24.90 a pound 2 weeks ago for Tokyo Grade #1 Tuna. Who the hell are they selling this stuff to? Ghosts? This is another example of a controlled market.

March 22 2011 at 1:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
donut999

this is a weird story. everybody knows japan is the seafood consumption king. they eat everything caught nearby their shores. and, of course, they really chase the high priced stuff like a sushi grade tuna that might sell for $70 grand. if world prices move anywhere, they should move down longer term.

March 22 2011 at 12:46 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to donut999's comment
Ray

donut,

u are absolutly spot on....they bough 20,000 tons of 34,000 tons of tuna and now the market is not going to drop? what the hell are they going to do with 20,000 tons of tokyo grade #1? If the prices do not drop then it isw truly a controlled market.

March 22 2011 at 1:10 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
n2uog

OK, Now you can expect the price of all fish to go up at your local supermarket and stay up for as long as they can keep it that way until they can figure out what to gouge us for next.

March 22 2011 at 12:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to n2uog's comment
Ray

if the price goes up you are being gouged.....don't buy it!

March 22 2011 at 1:11 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply