Hokkaido fisherfolk benefit from shift in Japanese yellowtail fishing grounds

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Yellowtail caught in Hokkaido are seen in Rausu, Hokkaido, in October 2020.

Japanese yellowtail fishing grounds have undergone a dramatic shift in recent years. Hokkaido, which previously registered next to no catches, registered the nation’s largest annual yellowtail haul in 2020, while Toyama and Niigata prefectures, traditionally known for their winter yellowtail, continue to register poor catches.

It is thought that rising sea temperatures could be behind the change, and some market insiders have even predicted an era in which Hokkaido reigns supreme as the nation’s top spot to land winter yellowtail.

At the end of last year, Daimaru Matsuzakaya department store in Ueno, Tokyo, hosted a product fair featuring goods from Hokkaido, including yellowtail — known as “buri” in Japan.

“It’s very fatty and sweet,” said a 70-year-old woman from Taito Ward, after sampling yellowtail caught off the Shakotan Peninsula. The buyer, who has managed the product fair for 20 years, enthused, “Winter yellowtail from Hokkaido is second to none!”

Yellowtail caught off Japan’s second-largest island first appeared on the market around 2015. Initially, the species was only encountered in fixed nets, but numbers have increased dramatically since then, and the fish is slowly becoming the mainstay of the fall and winter seasons, replacing salmon and atka mackerel, which continue to dwindle.

The Rausu Fisheries Cooperative Association — located in Rausu on the Sea of Okhotsk side of Hokkaido — designates fish over 8 kilograms as yellowtail from Shiretoko Rausu, a World Natural Heritage site. The cooperative’s take of such fish increased from 32 tons in 2015 to 389 tons in 2021.

On the Japan Sea side of the island, the Higashi Shakotan Fisheries Cooperative Association in the town of Furubira brands yellowtail exceeding certain weight and fat percentages as “Shiho” (yellowtail treasure). The cooperative’s haul of yellowtail over 7 kilograms jumped from 38 tons in 2016 to 540 tons in 2021.

Many yellowtail orders originate in the Kanto region. Yokohama-based fish wholesaler Yokohama Maruuo Co. pointed out that yellowtail fishing grounds seem to have moved to Hokkaido.

Government statistics show that Hokkaido’s 2020 yellowtail take of 15,300 tons, was the nation’s highest, outstripping Nagasaki Prefecture by some 3,000 tons.

In contrast, Toyama Prefecture, which promotes its own brand of kanburi yellowtail, registered 385 tons of yellowtail over 7 kilograms in the 2010 fishing season that lasts from October to March. However, this figure dropped to around 90 tons in 2021.

Even on Sado Island, a major yellowtail-landing site in Niigata, this season’s yield — as of January — was less than 20% of that of an average year.

According to research institutes in Hokkaido and Toyama and Niigata prefectures, yellowtail, which prefer water temperatures of 10 C to 15 C, migrate along the coast of Hokkaido during the summer then move south to spawning grounds in the East China Sea when the water temperature drops.

Toyama and Niigata, located on the marine route to the East China Sea, have traditionally been strong fishing grounds for yellowtail. But the temperature of the waters around Hokkaido never drop, even in winter, resulting in a delayed southward migration and a decrease in catches in the two prefectures.