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Japan's "fugu" or puffer fish market.

Japan imported nearly 1,700 metric tons (t) of fugu commonly known as blowfish, globefish, puffer, or swellfish), valued at $9.7 million in 1987. Japanese imports of fugu have increased more than 140 percent since 1985.

The fugu (puffer) gets its name from its ability to expand its body by two to three times normal size when it becomes agitated or frightened, thus taking on a balloon shape. It does this by gulping air or water into a sac in its belly. This behavior serves to frighten away predators or intimidate rivals.


Although fugu is one of the world's most poisonous fish, the Japanese have consumed it for centuries. The fugu's skin, ovaries, intestines, and liver contain tetrodotoxin, a powerful neurotoxin. If even a trace of these organs is left on the flesh of the fish, the consumer can die within minutes. A lethal dose of tetrodotoxin is about 1 mg and there is no known antidote. In Japan, about 60 percent of all fugu poisonings are fatal.

From 1974 to 1984, Japan had about 20 fugu poisoning fatalities per year. The trick to surviving a fugu meal is to make sure that it is prepared correctly--all traces of the internal organs must be removed from the fish's flesh. (To be completely fair to the fugu, it should be noted that fugu do vary widely in toxicity and some species are nontoxic.) The taste of fugu is said to be similar to chicken.

Domestic harvest

There are more than 100 species of fugu worldwide and nearly 25 percent of these are caught in the Sea of Japan, Yellow Sea, and East China Sea. Two of the most important species harvested by Japanese fishermen are torafugu, Fugu rubripes rubripes, and karasu, Fugu rubripes chinensis.

Japanese domestic landings of torafugu and karasu range from 2,000 to 2,500 t a year. Both species are caught by longliners from September through March in the southwestern Sea of Japan and from July through January in the Seto Inland Sea. In November 1986, the Japan Tsushima Swellfish Longline Fishery Company of Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture, signed a 3-year private agreement with the North Korean Government to fish for fugu in the Yellow Sea off the west coast of North Korea. Because the North Koreans do not allow fugu longlining, the Japanese use only pole-and-line fishing methods. Japan has historically fished for fugu in North Korean waters because of the large size and high quality of the fish caught there. Fugu caught in waters off South Korea are said to be of lower quality.

From 300 to 800 t of pen-raised fugu are harvested annually from October through December in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Most of these are sold fresh or live at auction in Karatsu (Yamaguchi Prefecture), and shipped to major cities, such as Osaka and Tokyo.

Imports and Markets

Japan allows 22 fugu species to be imported. Annual fugu imports averaged about 650 t from 1980 to 1985, valued at $4.5 million. The fugu's increasing popularity in recent years among younger Japanese consumers pushed imports to a 1987 record high of 1,700 t, valued at nearly $9.8 million. Taiwan was the major exporting country by quantity in 1987, shipping over 750 t, 15 times the quantity exported in 1986. South Korea was a close second with exports of 680 t, but was the hands-down winner by value-nearly $8 million. China and North Korea also exported fugu to Japan in 1987. Fresh torafugu is the major species imported from South Korea, China, and North Korea. Frozen sabafugu, Lagocephalus lunaris lunaris, and kusafugu, Fugu niphobles, are also imported from these countries, as well as Taiwan.

Fresh (or live) and frozen fugu are marketed differently in Japan. Both torafugu and karasu are normally marketed fresh or live at weights of 1.5-2.0 kg per fish. These two species are highly valued, selling for 3,090-4,700 [Yen]/kg (about $23-$35/kg at [Yen]133/US$1) at Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market. They are usually served as sashimi (very thin slices of raw fish) at expensive restaurants. Often fugu sashimi will be arranged in patterns resembling flowers or birds.

Frozen sabafugu and kusafugu are utilized primarily for processing and stewing, although some may be consumed 'as sashimi. They are usually imported frozen in 10 kg blocks and sold directly to the processors, bypassing Japan's wholesale auction markets. Two typical fugu processed products are fugu "ichiyaboshi" (semidried whole fish) and dried fugu or "fugu rolls" (headed fugu butterfly fillets pressed between rollers and dried).

Because the fugu's skin and viscera are extremely toxic, 14 prefectures, including Tokyo, allow only certified chefs to prepare fugu. All fugu cooks must take intensive courses, apprentice at least 2 years, and pass written exams. There are some 30 steps prescribed by law for preparing fugu.

Import Regulations

Because of the obvious health risks involved with the consumption of fugu, the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare rigidly controls imports of fugu into Japan. Fugu may be imported either unprocessed or gutted (as long as the identification of each fish is not impaired). Fish must be tagged with an official certificate from the exporting country identifying it by scientific name, fishing ground, and attesting to the fact that it received proper sanitary handling. If the fish is frozen, it must have been deep frozen and stored at a temperature below -10 [degrees] C. In addition, each fish should be individually frozen for easy identification. If this is not possible, fish may be frozen in blocks, but each fish's back and belly must be visible for species identification. If official certificates are incomplete or detached, or if the cargo is mixed with other species restricted from import, the cargo may be returned to the exporter. Imports of the same or other fugu species harvested in other waters must be negotiated with the Japanese Government to determine certificates of toxicity, fishing ground, species, etc. Import duties are 10 percent of the C.I.F. value for fresh, frozen or fillet.

U.S. Puffers

A number of puffers are caught in North American waters. One of the most common is the northern puffer, Sphoeroides maculatus, a nontoxic species which was popularly marketed as "sea squab-" along the Atlantic Coast during World War II. Unfortunately, the northern puffer is not on Japan's current import list and consequently cannot be imported into Japan. Ministry of Health and Welfare officials have indicated that negotiations for market access might be possible. Although the Japanese are not familiar with northern puffer, it could find a market if it is of sufficiently high quality. (Source: IFR-88/80.)
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Publication:Marine Fisheries Review
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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