U.S. Seafood Industry Braces For Japan Crisis Impact

Mar 18, 2011

The earthquake, tsunami and radiation leaks in Japan are having a ripple effect on the trans-Pacific seafood trade.

In Seattle, Sushi Kappo Tamura chef and owner Taichi Kitamura is worried now that a big chunk of the Japanese fishing industry damaged or destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami. Along with sushi, Kitamura's menu also features some traditional recipes that use Japanese fish.

"Consistency in availability is very important because you have a menu and you have to keep certain items on the menu," Kitamura says.

Kitamura is also worried about the safety of the seafood he imports. South Korea, Singapore and other Asian countries are already testing Japanese food imports for radiation. Japanese authorities say the levels of radiation released from the crippled nuclear reactors don't pose a public health risk. But Kitamura says skittish customers might decide to stay away.

"Food is something you eat not only with your tongue, you eat it with your brain, so any negative news about any food products, people are very sensitive about it," he says.

Kitamura has reason for concern. During the Gulf oil spill last year, sales of seafood from that region plummeted, even though federal inspectors certified the products were not contaminated.

"Surveys have shown that a significant fraction — 20, 30 percent — of consumers simply stayed away from seafood because they didn't trust what was happening," says John Sackton, who heads Seafood.com, an industry news site.

Sackton says that on the export side of the equation, the chaos in Japan could hurt some U.S. seafood companies, especially those selling herring roe, black cod and other items usually used in Japan for celebrations or gifts.

"There's a real concern about how strong the appetite of the Japanese consumer will be for luxury items, when they're in a situation where the country is focused on rebuilding and sacrifice and there's been so much loss," Sackton says.

The U.S. exports $750 million worth of fish products to Japan each year.

John Garner, who is vice president of the large Seattle-based fish producer Trident Seafoods, says sales of everyday foods such as salmon and pollack could get a boost as a result of the situation in Japan.

"We also know that a lot of product was destroyed, and so that pipeline is going to have to be refilled," Garner says.

Some seafood producers on the west coast of Canada report they're already getting calls from Japan asking about replacing seafood stocks lost in the tsunami. Garner says the broken infrastructure in northeast Japan will make it much harder to get export fish to consumers.

"The distribution systems have been disrupted of course. There's rationing of petroleum products, so trucks are not moving the same way, damage to highways," Garner says.

If Japanese demand for American seafood does drop, Garner says, much of it could be sold to other markets in Asia or Europe. But the Japanese typically pay top dollar, and sales elsewhere may be less profitable.

Just how much of a hit the seafood trade will take should become clearer in the coming weeks, as the Japanese slowly take stock of the damage done.