Prices rise as flying squid become harder to find off Japan's warming shores, unsettling a seafood-loving nation where fishermen are heroes of countless TV shows.
In land of sushi, a favorite snack moves out of reach
Takashi Odajima picked up a cracked and faded photograph and dusted it off with his sleeve. He smiled a little sadly at the image from long ago, back when he was a baby boy.
In the photo, he sits on his uncle’s lap as his family poses at a nearby dock, squid heaped in the background. In another, his uncle dries rows of squid, carefully folded like shirts over a clothesline on the roof of their house.
Odajima’s family has lived for generations in Hakodate, on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. It’s a city steeped in squid, a place where restaurants outside the local fish market advertise the start of the squid-fishing season with colorful banners.
When Odajima’s father returned home from World War II, he supported his family by driving a truck for a local seafood company. He was paid in salt, a valuable commodity at the time.
Using the salt, his family began making and selling shio-kara, a fermented squid dish that derives its name from its taste: “salty-spicy.” Because it keeps for days without refrigeration, it was an important source of protein for Japan’s starving population after the war.
Seven decades later, most Japanese bars still serve it as an appetizer, and small bottles are sold in supermarkets as a condiment to be eaten with rice.
“Someone once asked me what squid means to people in Hakodate, and I told him that it was our soul. I was half-joking at the time,” Odajima, 66, said. “But squid was always the main dish, long before we started eating rice.”
Out of more than a dozen types of squid eaten here, the Japanese flying squid, or Todarodes pacificus, is so central to the national cuisine, it’s sometimes referred to as maika, or the true squid.
But now, fluctuations in ocean temperatures and years of overfishing and lax regulatory oversight have drastically depleted populations of the translucent squid in waters around Japan. As recently as 2011, fishermen in Japan were hauling in more than 200,000 tons of flying squid a year. That number had fallen by three-quarters to 53,000 tons last year, the lowest harvest since Japan’s national fisheries cooperative started keeping records more than 30 years ago. Japanese researchers say they expect catches of flying squid to be even smaller this year.
That such a ubiquitous creature could disappear has shaken a country whose identity is intertwined with fish and fishing, a nation where sushi chefs are treated like rock stars and fishermen are the heroes of countless TV shows. The shortage of flying squid, an icon of the working and middle classes, has dealt a hard blow to the livelihoods of not only fishermen, but everyone from suppliers to traders at Tokyo’s famous fish market.
The fate of the flying squid is a microcosm of a global phenomenon that has seen marine life fleeing waters that have undergone the fastest warming on record. Reuters has spent more than a year scouring decades of maritime temperature readings, fishery records and other little-used data to create a portrait of the planet’s hidden climate change – in the rarely explored depths of the seas that cover more than 70% of the Earth’s surface.
Fish have always followed changing conditions, sometimes with devastating effects for people, as the starvation in Norwegian fishing villages in past centuries when the herring failed to appear one season will attest. But what is happening today is different: The accelerating rise in sea temperatures, which scientists primarily attribute to the burning of fossil fuels, is causing a lasting shift in fisheries.
In Japan, average market prices of the once-humble squid have nearly doubled in the past two years, quickly putting the dish out of reach for many blue-collar and middle-class Japanese families that grew up eating it.
Here in Hakodate, the squid shortage threatens the very culture and shared history of the town. One of the country’s first ports to open for trade with the outside world in the 19th century, it has the look of a Japanese San Francisco, with gingerbread Victorians and tram lines that slope down to the waterfront.
Odajima’s earliest memory is of his mother buying squid from a neighbor’s cart piled high with the morning’s catch. Now, fishermen barely have enough squid to sell to traders, much less to neighbors. A festival celebrating the start of the squid season in a nearby town has been canceled two years in a row.
Odajima still works in the family compound, a collection of deteriorating buildings near the Hakodate docks. Walking through a cluttered storage shed, he shows off the factory floor where he keeps his family treasure: dozens of 60-year-old barrels made of Japanese cedar. He’s one of the last local manufacturers still using wooden barrels to ferment and age his product. Odajima also refuses to use cheaper imported squid, saying it would harm the brand’s locally sourced appeal.
But with costs skyrocketing, he isn’t sure about the future of his family business. His 30-year-old son quit his office job to help out after Odajima failed to find new workers. “I wanted to be able to hand it to him in better shape,” he said, “but now…”
One morning in June, Odajima joined a huddle of men at the docks for one of the first squid auctions for the season.
They looked over three neat piles of white Styrofoam boxes, comforting one another that it was still early in the squid season.
“Shit, they’re all tiny,” one buyer said. His friend walked away without waiting for the bidding to start.
At exactly 6.20 a.m., men in green jackets tipped their hats and began the auction. Once an event that used to attract dozens of buyers and take as long as an hour, this one took less than two minutes.
A gruff buyer supplying local restaurants that cater mostly to tourists strode to the front of the pack and bought all 11 boxes without looking. The rest of the group, including Odajima, hung back and shook their heads.
In the month of June, just 31 tons of fresh squid ended up at Hakodate’s main market, 70 percent less than the previous year. A typical squid caught in the Sea of Japan now weighs a third less than it did 10 years ago, according to surveys by Takafumi Shikata, a researcher at the Ishikawa Prefecture Fisheries Research Center.
The squid shortage has become so dire, anxious bankers with outstanding loans to those in the industry have started showing up at the annual seminars held by Yasunori Sakurai, one of Japan’s foremost experts on cephalopods.
Sakurai, the chair of the Hakodate Cephalopod Research Center, began warning fishermen and other researchers about the effects of climate change on Japan’s squid population nearly two decades ago.
The flying squid gains its name from the way it can spread its mantle like a parachute to draw in and eject water, using propulsion to fly above the waves. The squid spend their short life – just over a year – migrating thousands of miles between the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean, mating, then returning to lay eggs in the same area where they were born.
Sakurai blames climate change for recent fluctuations in ocean temperatures – a cold snap in waters where the squid spawn and steadily warming waters in the Sea of Japan where they migrate. These changes mean that fewer eggs laid in the colder-than-average waters in the East China Sea survive, and those that do hatch are swimming northward to avoid unnaturally warm waters in the Sea of Japan.
The Sea of Japan has warmed 1.7 degrees Celsius (around 3 degrees Fahrenheit) in the past century, making it one of the fastest-warming areas in the seas surrounding the archipelago. Based on predictions by Sakurai’s former students now at Japan’s Fisheries Research and Education Agency, surface temperatures in these waters may rise an additional 3.7 degrees Celsius over the next century.
These changes have taken a toll on squid.
“It’s something that’s always been eaten on the side, and now it’s just gone. Everyone is asking why,” Sakurai said.
Others, like retired regulator and researcher Masayuki Komatsu, argue that although Japanese officials and fishermen are loath to admit it, the country’s rampant overfishing and lax regulatory oversight are also to blame for the shortage.
“They all blame it on climate change, and that’s the end of the discussion for them,” said Komatsu, who served as a senior official in Japan’s fisheries agency until 2004.
Since Japan started setting catch limits for the flying squid 20 years ago, fishermen have never come close to hitting the limit of the quotas. This year, the fisheries agency said it will allow fishermen to catch 97,000 tons of squid, a third less than the government’s limit for last year, but nearly double what fishermen actually caught during the same period.
The ministry acknowledges that flying squid, particularly those born in winter months, are rapidly declining. But officials say the catch limits are appropriate given the scientific evidence available. They say it is especially hard to study the elusive creature, which travels long distances over a short lifespan and is more susceptible to environmental changes than many other marine species.
“It isn’t scientific to simply say that because squid isn’t being caught, we need to lower the catch limits, when we don’t have the scientific backing to justify that,” said Yujiro Akatsuka, assistant director of the agency’s resources management promotion office.
Ripped curtains and fraying bits of cardboard cover windows of the empty storefronts along the main shopping street in Sakata, a town on the northwestern coast of Japan that once thrived as a major trading hub for rice and later as a fishing port. Old signs for grocery stores, camera shops and beauty parlors are barely visible through a thicket of vines.
Wooden warehouses that once stored the region’s rice are one of the few reminders of the town’s prosperous past. They were turned into souvenir stores after the buildings were featured in a popular television drama series.
On an early summer day, the docks were deserted except for a group of young Indonesian men living in shared rooms next to the port. They’re Japan’s answer to an aging industry, part of an army of young foreign men brought into the country to take fishing jobs spurned by Japanese men.
Shigeru Saito was 15 when he boarded his first fishing boat. By the time he was 27, he was at the helm of his own ship. He never questioned his path. Both his father and grandfather, born on a small island off Sakata’s coast, had been fishermen.
Now 60, Saito has steered dozens of ships all over Japan. When Saito started fishing, Japan had a fleet of more than 400 ships harvesting squid. He now captains one of the 65 remaining ships specially kitted with powerful light bulbs that lure squid from dark waters.
Until recently, his crew could return to port in two weeks after the start of the squid-fishing season in early June with their ship’s hold full of flying squid. Now, it takes them almost 50 days to catch that much.
“We’re having to travel farther and farther north to chase squid, but there are limits,” he said, pausing his round of checks to sit in the captain’s room of his ship, the Hoseimaru No. 58, where he sleeps in a tiny cot under boxes of equipment.
As competition intensifies for an ever-dwindling catch, fishermen have begun blaming trawlers from China, South Korea and Taiwan for overfishing in nearby waters. In recent years, fishermen from North Korea have also joined the competition. Japan says North Koreans are illegally poaching squid in the Yamato Shallows, a particularly abundant area in the Sea of Japan.
Saito’s fishing lines got tangled in a net set by a North Korean boat there last year. Cautious about any confrontation with North Koreans, he and other Japanese fishermen abandoned the area early in the squid season.
“We can’t fish in these conditions,” he said.
Young Japanese men like Saito’s son are reluctant to join the industry, with its long months away from home and physically grueling labor. His crew is already half Indonesian. Soon, he said, only the captain will need to be Japanese.
In the last decade, the number of fishermen in Japan has declined by more than a third to fewer than 160,000. Of those left, an average fisherman earns about $20,000, not even half of Japan’s national median income.
“My son is a salaryman in the city,” Saito said. “I couldn’t recommend this to him – how could I? We’re away a third of the year,” and, with North Korean poachers on the prowl, “the waters are more dangerous now.”
The next day, men set up folding chairs and tents on Sakata’s dock for a ceremony marking the start of the fishing season. Saito joined other captains in the front row, bowing his head with his baseball cap in his hands. Young Indonesian men fidgeted in the back of the crowd. Melodic chants of Buddhist monks filled the salty air.
“We know we are powerless before the might of nature,” one monk said as the captains fixed their eyes on the ground. “We cannot go against the power of the sea. But we pray for a bountiful harvest and safe passage over the seas.”
Several weeks had passed since Japan’s squid-fishing fleet left port. But in Tokyo, near the Tsukiji fish market, Atsushi Kobayashi was waiting anxiously. The specialist wholesaler still hadn’t received a single shipment of flying squid from northern Japan. His driver sat on the concrete curb next to Kobayashi’s truck smoking in the midday sun.
In the past, each week Kobayashi would unload three to four shipments of 1,200 squid, to be dispatched to high-end sushi restaurants around Tokyo.
“Last year, the fishing season ended in November because the squid disappeared” – two months earlier than usual. He unlocked his phone to message another customer that he had nothing to sell that day.
Elsewhere in Tsukiji, the largest wholesale seafood exchange in the world, hundreds of other family-run fish traders were also awaiting this season’s catch. But by the time cases of squid finally began to arrive later in the summer, many of the traders were preparing to close their stalls to abandon the 80-year-old market.
In October, hundreds of fishmongers moved to a gleaming new market on the waterfront that cost more than $5 billion. But others, their businesses already failing from a drop in consumer demand, higher operational costs and a lack of interest from the families’ younger generation, didn’t make the move.
Those who left felt a powerful sense of loss about a place that has been a colorful symbol of the country’s fishing industry.
Masako Arai was one of them. Her husband’s family started their wholesale fish trading business 95 years ago, first in Nihonbashi, where the previous market was destroyed in a massive earthquake and fire in 1923, and later in Tsukiji.
“Our families have lived here and protected this place for generations,” the 75-year-old grandmother said.
Near Arai’s store were empty spaces where families had tended shop for generations; more than a hundred businesses have closed in the past five years. Nearly a third of the remaining 500 fish traders at the market were losing money.
“It feels like we’re always on shifting sand, and we don’t know what the future holds,” Arai said.
Nor do the chefs who create Japan’s signature cuisine.
Kazuo Nagayama has visited Tsukiji most mornings for the past 50 years to buy fresh fish. Once back at his sushi bar in the Nihonbashi district, he changes into his white uniform to write out the day’s menu with an ink brush. For the past few years, the 76-year-old chef has found it harder to list local fish he deems decent enough to serve to his customers. On this summer day, the first item on his handwritten menu was yellowfin tuna shipped from Boston.
“I’m worried that people won’t know what it’s like to taste truly delicious fish,” he said. “Fishermen feel they have no future, and fisherfolk are disappearing. Our culture surrounding fishing is disappearing, and our culinary culture is also fading.”
Nagayama doesn’t allow anyone else to handle fish behind the counter, where customers pay up to $300 each for the chef’s nightly omakase course. Although his tiny bar is usually fully booked, he doesn’t see a future for it – he has no children and no heir.
“We’ll have to close in the next four to five years,” he said. “I’ll be the last one here.”
At Nabaya, a dark bar across the street from his Tokyo office, Hiroshi Nonoyama sipped a beer after another long day at work.
“It’s all depressing news, not a great topic of conversation over drinks,” he said. Nonoyama manages a trade group overseeing 79 companies that manufacture everything from squid-flavored potato chips to squid jerky. They’ve been some of the hardest hit by the recent run of poor harvests, Nonoyama said.
“A lot of these guys are old school. They haven’t diversified beyond using flying squid, you see? And when that becomes too expensive? Boom!” he said, crashing his hand on the bar counter.
Already this year, two of his companies had gone out of business because of the rising cost of squid.
“I only heard about one of them because I got a call from the tax office about unpaid taxes,” he said, sighing. The owner, who had employed 70 workers for half a century, was now on the run from his creditors.
“Everyone’s raising prices, but how much are customers willing to pay?” Nonoyama asked.
It’s the same question that Odajima, the Hakodate squid merchant, asks himself every day. He has nearly doubled prices in the past two years to 700 yen per bottle.
“Buyers are telling me that if I raise prices again, they won’t be able to sell it as a side dish or condiment – consumers just won’t buy it,” he said.
His factory’s yearly output is almost half of what it was 10 years ago. Looking for ways to survive, Odajima is now courting boutique supermarkets and upscale restaurants.
Recently, Odajima flew to Tokyo to pitch his product. By the time he arrived at Ginza Six, a shimmering luxury mall in the city’s posh shopping district, he was already sweating in his oversized pinstripe suit. He adjusted his tie and patted down his freshly cut hair in front of Imadeya, a premium liquor store on the basement floor of the mall.
Two Chinese women sampled glasses of Japanese wine under a pair of Edison bulbs at the shop counter. Shohei Okawa, the store’s 36-year-old manager, waited patiently as Odajima pulled several jars of shio-kara out of a cooler he had carried on the plane from Hakodate. Folded copies of Tokyo’s subway map peeked out of his large duffel bag.
“As you know, prices are getting higher, particularly for squid,” he said, suddenly sounding formal and looking anxious. “Which is part of the reason why we’d love to sell in a higher-end store like yours.”
“What other stores carry this in Tokyo?” Okawa asked. “And is this rare? Is it authentic?”
Odajima quickly added that his product was handmade with no artificial coloring.
Satisfied, Okawa said he would send in orders for a few cases.
Outside, leaning against the mall’s glass façade, Odajima was happy – for the moment, at least.
“I wonder what my father would think, selling it at a place like this,” he said. “It’s a little unbelievable. We had so much squid we didn’t know what to do with it. Now, it’s become a delicacy.”
Edited by Kari Howard
“Someone once asked me what squid means to people in Hakodate, and I told him that it was our soul. I was half-joking at the time. But squid was always the main dish.”