The Sashimi Tuna Industry in the Pacific / by Francisco Blaha

Got good feedback from my post on the canned tuna industry, so under the same "modus operandi" here are my findings on the Sashimi / Longining side of the tuna business in the Pacific. A very different scenario in all accounts, I wish Longliners were only half as regulated and under control as Purseiners are, but we are slowly getting there... at some stage :-)  

Jamie doing the best job he can

Jamie doing the best job he can

Again, lot of the info comes from the great publication by my friends and colleges Hamilton, McCoy, Campling et all "Market and Industry Dynamics in the Global Tuna Supply Chain" published by FFA/DevFISH II in 2011. 

The Players 

Annual tuna supply to the global sashimi market is currently around 500,000 mt, the majority of which is supplied to the Japanese sashimi market (around 80%). The Japanese and Taiwanese longline fleets are the top two suppliers of sashimi-grade tuna, collectively accounting for over half of global longline catches. Other significant longline fleets include Korea, China and Indonesia.

The longline industry is generally characterised by two vessel types – large-scale distant water vessels (supplying frozen tuna) and small-medium scale offshore vessels (supplying fresh tuna). Longline vessels targeting albacore for canning (e.g. Taiwanese, Chinese, PIC fleets) or other species such as sharks and swordfish, may also supply incidental bigeye and yellowfin catch to the fresh sashimi market.

Distant water vessels operate in all three oceans and are typically around 400-500 GRT, significantly greater than 24 metres in length, steel-hulled, have ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezer capabilities (-55-60°C) for storing catch and generally tranship at sea. Smaller-scale fresh tuna longliners usually limit operations to one ocean area and are typically less than 100 GRT, below 24 metres in length, fibreglass reinforced plastic (FRP) or steel-hulled and use ice or refrigerated seawater (RSW) for storing catch, which is offloaded in ports.

Longline vessel numbers in most fleets have declined markedly over the past 5-10 years, in part due to serious profitability constraints stemming from increasing operating costs (especially fuel) and declining catches relating to overcapacity and stock sustainability issues. Further vessel number reductions relate to capacity reduction programs implemented by the Governments of the two largest distant water fleets, Japan and Taiwan, in an effort to reduce global longline fishing overcapacity.

A notable exception is the Chinese fleet which, contrary to vessel number declines in other major fleets (i.e. Japan, Taiwan, Korea), has increased in size, due largely to the purchase of ex-Japanese vessels which had ceased operations due to bankruptcy.

A number of key issues currently impacting longline vessel fishing operations globally include – longline fishing overcapacity, purse seine fishing overcapacity, IUU fishing, stock sustainability issues, rising fuel costs, stagnant prices and market demand, and competition from ranched/farmed bluefin. Large distant water longline fishing operations have been, and continue to be, the most vulnerable to these issues.

Smaller-scale vessels, particularly those capable of multiple targets (e.g. albacore and/or bigeye) have demonstrated greater resilience, as they have more flexibility to adapt to changing operating conditions.

Tuna longline for sashimi is categorized based on type of operation, area fished, and target species:

South Pacific offshore albacore longline fishery comprises Pacific-Islands domestic “offshore” vessels, such as those from American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu; these fleets mainly operate in subtropical waters, with albacore the main species taken.

Tropical offshore bigeye/yellowfin-target longline fishery includes “offshore” sashimi longliners from Taiwan, based in Micronesia, Guam, Philippines and Taiwan, mainland Chinese vessels based in Micronesia, and domestic fleets based in Indonesia, Micronesian countries, Philippines, PNG, the Solomon Islands and Vietnam.

Tropical distant-water bigeye/yellowfin-target longline fishery comprises “distantwater” vessels from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, mainland China and Vanuatu. These vessels primarily operate in the eastern tropical waters of the WCP–CA (and into the EPO), targeting bigeye and yellowfin tuna for the frozen sashimi market.

Chinese longliners waiting (for more subsidies?) in Suva harbour

Chinese longliners waiting (for more subsidies?) in Suva harbour


  • Japan’s sashimi market is supplied with catch from the Japanese longline, pole and line and purse seine fleets.
  • The Japanese longline fishery has three major vessel classes – distant water (>120 GRT), offshore (10-120 GRT) and coastal (<20 GRT). Total longline catch (excluding coastal vessels) was 47,199 mt in 2009, with catch volumes declining significantly in conjunction with decreases in vessels numbers.
  • In 2000, 529 distant water longline vessels were in operation; by 2010 this number had decreased to 268. Around 30% of Japan’s distant water longline vessels are profitable; only 100 or so vessels survived since then. In late 2010, there were 275 small offshore vessels (10-20 GRT) and 51 mid-sized offshore vessels (20- 120GRT) in operation. The number of mid-sized offshore vessels has reduced significantly (142 in 2000), while small offshore vessel numbers have remained relatively stable.
  • Japan’s pole and line fleet is comprised of two major vessel classes – distant water (>120 GT) and offshore (20-120 GT). In 2010, the fleet consisted of 26 distant water and 67 offshore pole and line vessels; vessel numbers have decreased over time. Total catch in 2009 was 95,000 mt; a significant decrease from 150,000 mt in 2005. Catch composition has also changed with much higher catch volumes of albacore (i.e. 10% albacore in 2005, 34% in 2009).
  • High fuel prices, as well as the ageing of experienced officers and problems with recruiting young Japanese crew members were identified as the most serious factors which will continue to impact Japanese sashimi fishing fleets in the future.
  • Following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, vessel numbers in the coastal longline and pole and line fleets have declined due to wreckages sustained from the natural disaster. Lives of fishing crew members and employees in shore-based tuna businesses have also been lost.


Compliance troubles

Compliance troubles

  • Taiwan’s sashimi-grade longline fishing fleet consists of two classes of vessels - large scale (>100 GT, primarily targeting bigeye) and small-scale (<100 GT, primarily targeting yellowfin). Some of the albacore-targeting longliners of both size classes may also produce sashimi-grade fish from their incidental catch of bigeye and yellowfin.
  • Two major operational characteristics define Taiwan longline activity - the ability to switch target species and in some cases freezing and holding temperature to maximize value of a particular segment of the catch; and, the retention where possible of much of the incidental catch.
  • The number of vessels in Taiwan’s large-scale longline fleet has decreased significantly in recent years – in 2010, the fleet consisted of 359 vessels, a decrease from 562 in 2004. In 2008, an estimated 1,400 small-scale longline vessels between 20-100 GT were in operation and around 500 vessels less than 20 GT. There is also significant Taiwanese ownership of non-Taiwan flag longline vessels fishing for sashimi-grade tunas.
  • The number of Taiwan’s large-scale tuna longline vessels operating in WCPO waters in 2009 was 75, a steep decline from 133 active in 2005. The total bigeye catch for the large-scale fleet was reported to be 8,863 mt in 2009. About 1,220 small-scale tuna longline vessels fished in the WCPO in 2009, catching an estimated 16,500 mt of yellowfin and 4,500 mt of bigeye.
  • Among the two fleets, the large-scale component is the most vulnerable to increased operating costs. Similarly, small-scale vessels are challenged by operating cost increases, but exhibit greater flexibility and are in a better position to adapt to changing conditions in the fishery. The design and construction of small-scale longliners has continued to evolve in recent years.


  • In 2008, the global Korean longline fleet was comprised of 158 vessels (compared with 276 in 1990), with a total global catch of almost 38,000 mt. Most are large ULT vessels, typically 350-500 GRT in size.
  • In 2009, 111 Korean longliners operated in the WCPO, catching around 31,000 mt; 50% of the retained catch was bigeye and 30% yellowfin.
  • The majority of Korean longline catch is exported to Japan, but increasing volumes are supplied to the growing domestic sashimi market.
  • Vessel numbers in the longline fishery have continued to fall due to increased regulation, increased operational costs and uncertainties regarding the resource base, although vessel numbers are believed to have stabilized for the time being.
  • Given most of the Korean longline catch is taken in WCPO waters, future prospects for the Korea’s longline fleet closely relate to ongoing developments in the region. At-sea transhipment is critical to the viability of the Korean fleet. Hence, Korean vessel owners are particularly concerned about the possible prohibition of at-sea transhipment in the WCPFC convention area.


  • Sashimi-grade tuna is produced from two Chinese longline vessel categories - smaller vessels (<30 metres) based in Pacific Island ports, and larger distant-water ULT vessels (up to 70 metres) operating in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Fiji-based Chinese longliners targeting canning-grade albacore also supply fresh sashimi-grade fish from the last 10-15 sets of a trip. Global bigeye catch by Chinese longliners totalled around 21,800 mt for 2008.
  • About 138 Chinese large-scale distant water tuna longliners operate worldwide. In 2010, 90-100 distant water longliners were active in WCPO waters; an increase from a reported 45 vessels operating in 2008. In 2009, 70-80 small-scale vessels delivered fresh fish to fish bases in FSM and Marshall Islands. Total longline catch by Chinese longliners in WCPO waters in 2009 of bigeye and yellowfin was around 9,800 mt and 6,300 mt respectively.
  • Although distant water longliners do not require extensive support from shore bases, Suva (Fiji) has become the preferred port for re-supply and general support of Chinese ULT longliners, when required. ULT catch by distant water longliners is exported to Japan. Fresh sashimi-grade yellowfin and bigeye from smaller-scale vessels is air-freighted to the Japanese and US markets.


  • Indonesian longline and handline fisheries operate in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
  • In 2009, total sashimi-grade catch by Indonesian vessels was around 45,000 mt, 25,000 mt of which was caught in Indian Ocean waters (one-third of late 1990s levels) and around 20,000 mt in Pacific waters.
  • Indonesia has declined considerably in importance as a supplier of sashimi-grade tuna since the late 1990s, particularly with the reduction in Indian Ocean catch. However, it remains a significant source of lower grade frozen sashimi-grade tuna to the US market.


  • US longline fisheries in the WCPO are based in Hawaii and American Samoa. In 2010, 156 vessels operated in the region. The Hawaii-based fleet comprised of around 130 vessels, targets sashimi-grade bigeye. The American Samoa-based fleet (26 vessels in 2009) supplies canning-grade albacore, although incidental bigeye and yellowfin may be marketed for sashimi.
  • Total catch of all tuna species by the US longline fleet in the WCPFC convention area was approx 9,000 mt in 2010; a marked decline from 2007 catch volumes of 12,753 mt. Around 4,000 mt of bigeye and 820 mt of yellowfin were caught in 2009.
  • The Hawaii-based longline fleet targets not only bigeye, but also swordfish. A three year closure of the swordfish fishery from 2001-2004 and the subsequent introduction of stricter management regulations has harmed vessel operators’ swordfish and tuna businesses, due to a buyer perception that vessels could not consistently provide product.

Others - WCPO

  • Vietnam’s small-scale longline fleet lands an estimated 15,000 mt (mostly yellowfin), while larger vessels land less than 5,000 mt annually. Vietnam is a significant exporter of fresh and frozen tuna (mostly yellowfin) in various processed forms and was the largest exporter of fresh tuna to the US market in 2009 (2,600 mt, 12% of total US imports).
  • Potential exists to further develop the domestic longline fishery and value-added export processing sector, with recent dramatic growth experienced in these sectors.
  • While the Philippines has a small fleet of less than twenty large distant water longliners, it has a significant handline fishery of around 1,000 vessels (total catch 8,200 mt in 2009; 90% yellowfin). During the 1990s, much of the catch was exported as sashimi-quality fresh chilled whole fish to Japan. However, with the increasing shift to value-added processing (typically CO-treated tuna products), less than 25% of exports are now marketed in whole round fresh-chilled form.
  • In 2012, 97 Fiji-based longline vessels caught approx 15,000 mt of tuna (of which (7,200 mt) was canning-grade albacore;. High quality fresh-chilled bigeye and yellowfin is exported mostly to the Japanese and US markets. Significant quantities of frozen loins also exported to the EU market that is recovering after  Fiji losing EU market access in late 2008.
  • Tonga, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea all produce (or have formerly produced, in the case of Solomon Islands) small quantities of sashimi quality tuna for export to the Japanese and US markets. French Polynesia has a large domestic longline fleet (68 vessels), although the majority of catch (80%; ~5,000mt) is utilised for local consumption.

Principal Sashimi Markets

Japan is the world’s principal and pioneer market for fresh-chilled and frozen sashimi-grade tuna, given sashimi and sushi are food dishes which are unique to Japanese cuisine. Until the 1990s, sashimi tuna was almost exclusively consumed in Japan. Today, Japan still remains by far the largest sashimi market, accounting for at least 80% of global consumption.

soon to come to&nbsp;your sushi rstaurant

soon to come to your sushi rstaurant

By comparison, the second most significant sashimi market, the US, accounts for an estimated 8-10% of total sashimi consumption. Annual tuna supply to the global sashimi market is currently estimated at around 500,000 mt; 300,000-400,000 mt of which is supplied to Japan.

An estimated 60,000-100,000 mt is currently supplied to other non-Japanese sashimi markets. The first sashimi markets to develop outside of Japan in the 1990s were the US and Europe (particularly, the UK). Sizeable markets have since developed elsewhere in Asia, with consumption in Korea, China and Taiwan already exceeding that of the European Union.

The growing popularity of Japanese food is also evident in Australia and New Zealand, with a huge boom in the past several years of fast-food retail sushi outlets. Markets are also emerging in Eastern Europe (i.e. Russia) and South America (i.e. Peru and Ecuador).


  • Japan consumes an estimated 80% of total annual global sashimi production, with a market value of US $3.4 billion (2006 estimate). Sashimi consumption in Japan peaked in 2002 at around 650,000 mt, but has declined significantly since this time; by 2009, annual consumption was an estimated 308,000 mt.
  • An estimated 149,000 mt of sashimi-grade tuna was supplied by Japanese domestic landings in 2009. The remaining supply (159,000 mt) was met from imports from other longline and handline fleets, as well as bluefin tuna ranching operations in the Mediterranean, Mexico and South Australia. Roughly, 30% of total sashimi-grade tuna supply to Japan is fresh-chilled, while 70% is frozen.
  • Since the mid 1990s, sashimi prices in the Japanese market have been depressed due to oversupply. Price stagnation has been further exacerbated by economic recession in Japan and the recent global economic crisis, which has depressed food prices generally and influenced
  • Japanese consumer’s preference for cheaper, lower-end sashimi and sushi products. Competition from cheaper farmed product has also placed pressure on prices.
  • The Japanese sashimi market is characterised by multiple complex market arrangements and distribution systems, but these can largely be distinguished into two channels according to the fresh and frozen sashimi market segments – ‘traditional’ channels (i.e. government regulated wholesale markets systems) and, ‘unofficial’ channels (i.e. more direct marketing channels which largely by-pass the traditional wholesale market system). Historically, both fresh and frozen tuna was marketed through the traditional wholesale market system. This market channel remains significant for high quality fresh-chilled tuna. However, with large advances in freezing technology and development of the cold chain over the past 20-30 years, coupled with the growing significance of trading companies in tuna sashimi trading, there has been a considerable shift in the volume of frozen sashimi-grade tuna sold through unofficial channels, rather than the traditional wholesale market channel. Unofficial channels dominate sales to supermarkets and large retailers (i.e. restaurants, sushi bar chains).
  • Over the past twenty years, Japanese consumers’ purchasing preferences for sashimi tuna have changed markedly. During the economic boom of the 1980s and early 1990s, Japanese consumers’ expenditure on eating out was high and their exposure to, and subsequently, consumption levels of high quality of fresh sashimi tuna increased. However, since the mid 1990s, economic recession prompted Japanese consumers to eat at home much more, which has had a major influence on the rise in supermarket sales of lower-priced and lower quality frozen sashimi-grade tuna. Japanese household consumption of tuna in Japan is in decline, in both volume and value terms. This stems from competition from other protein sources, both seafood and non-seafood. The declining overall trend in sashimi consumption (both in restaurants and homes) is likely to continue given continued low population growth, declining household expenditure on food items generally, and changing consumer taste preferences of the younger generation away from seafood to non-seafood protein sources.

Other Products – Katsuobushi

  • In addition to shelf-stable and fresh-chilled and frozen products, another notable product utilizing tuna, which is unique to Japan, is katsuobushi – flakes or shavings of dried and smoked skipjack (bonito) tuna, used widely in Japanese cooking as a condiment and as a key ingredient in soup broths (dashi) and sauces. The use of katsuobushi in Japanese cuisine is steeped in tradition as its origins date back as early as the Muromachi period (1336-1573).
  • Previously, around 200,000 mt of raw material was required annually for domestic katsuobushi production in Japan. Over the past five years or so, raw material requirements have declined to around 160,000 mt, due to decreasing consumer demand, as well as an increase in the volume of imported katsuobushi products. Japan’s katsuobushi processing industry relies heavily on raw materials caught in WCPO waters by the Japanese purse seine fleet (and to a much lesser extent the Japanese distant pole and line fleet), as well as imported skipjack from other fleets, also operating in WCPO waters.
  • Total annual domestic production volumes of katsuobushi products in Japan in the early 2000s ranged between 35,000-40,000 mt (net finished weight), but have since declined to around 32,000 mt in 2009.
  • Katsuobushi accounts for almost 25% of total tuna consumed in Japan annually. Given katsuobushi products are so culturally ingrained in Japanese cuisine and the market is mature, this relative trend is long-standing and unlikely to change. However, like Japanese canned tuna and sashimi consumption, the actual volume of katsuobushi products consumed annually is steadily declining, due to an ageing population and low population growth.

Longline Transshipment and Unloading Activities in the WCPO

  • No firm transshipment volume amounts are available for the four distinct longline fisheries in the WCPO that unload at sea or in port. It is believed the greatest amount of transhipping at sea takes place in the distant water bigeye/yellowfin target fishery as the practice is an integral part of operations in that fishery.