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Top Japanese seafood exec: ‘We need to stop the decline in consumption’

President of the Japanese Fisheries Association talks declining seafood consumption, boosting Japan’s international presence and rebuilding Fukushima’s fishing industry.

Tackling the decline in Japan's seafood consumption, while boosting exports and growing Japan’s presence on the international seafood stage are some of the main priorities for Toshiro Shirasu, president of the Japan Fisheries Association.

Speaking to IntraFish at the Japan International Seafood and Technology Expo in Tokyo, Shirasu said the organization’s single biggest challenge is reversing the decline in Japan's seafood consumption, which has steadily been dropping for years.

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Historically Japan was top in the world for seafood consumption “but for the last 10 years it has been declining,” said Shirasu.

“It is going down, we are still sixth or seventh in terms of consumption, but we used to be number one."

As a result, the organization is attempting a multipronged approach to bring it back up.

This includes reconnecting the younger generation with fish by promoting seafood for school meals, launching seminars showing both children and parents how to fillet and prepare fish, as well as developing easier to prepare “fast fish” products.

“There has been an increase in young professionals in Japan who are no longer cooking at home, while the population in general is declining,” said Shirasu.

“Half of fish products are still sold as whole fish, but young people do not know what to do or how to fillet, so it is easier for them to cook meat which is much cheaper and has no bones to deal with – this is causing the industry to decline and profits to decrease.”

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This is where the concept of “fast fish” was born.

“It used to be people wanted to buy whole fish, but now it is about quick, ready-to-eat, ready-to-cook, microwaveable fish, targeted at younger people," Shirasu said.

In this vein there was a series of seminars during the exhibition to connect and educate children – as well as primary schools and parent – on preparing fish.

“We have one purpose: to promote domestic consumption," Shirasu said. "It is about stopping the decline rather than increasing."

And yet...

While consumption falls at home, the worldwide trend for Japanese food is rising and Japanese tourism increasing. Those tourists, among their other activities, want to eat Japanese fish.

“We are the seafood Mecca of the world with 28 million tourists visiting Japan in 2017 and 40 million expected in 2020, all wanting to enjoy quality seafood,” said Shirasu.

Japan’s agriculture, forestry and fisheries exports hit a record high in 2017 for the fifth straight year, but the level -- around JPY 807.3 billion (€6.3 billion/$7.2 billion) -- is still far from the JPY 1 trillion (€7.8 billion/$9 billion) target the government hopes to achieve by 2019.

Of this, fisheries exports amounted to JPY 275 billion (€2.1 billion/$2.5 billion) in 2017. The sector is targeting JPY 350 billion (€2.7 billion/$3.1 billion) by the end of 2019, Shirasu said.

The main seafood exports from Japan currently include scallops, mackerel, yellowtail, sea cucumber, Pacific saury and tuna.

Industry still recovering

Seven years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, the biggest challenge left for the area now is the recovery of the lost sales channels for the seafood processing industry.

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This year, the largest number of companies -- 54 from Aomori, four from Iwate, 30 from Miyagi, six from Fukushima and four from Ibaraki -- exhibited from the affected areas.

“We will continue to support the disaster area fishery processing industry to recover sales channels,” said Shirasu.

“We are currently rebuilding. We are working on the fishing, catching and cultivation as well as processing in areas such as Tohoku, Aomori, Iwate and Miyagi.”

Meanwhile, radiation levels on tested samples from the Fukushima area are now more than fine, added Shirasu.

“But business is hard, factories in the area were completely destroyed and need to be built back up again," he said.

Around 80 percent of the infrastructure is rebuilt, but it will take some time to rebuild markets, and find new ones.

“On the shelves others have taken space, and companies need to get their market share back somehow,” said Shirasu.

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