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The sea urchin market in Japan.

The Japanese market for live sea urchin and sea urchin roe from the United States is growing rapidly, but it has not yet been fully developed. Although imported sea urchin has penetrated the Japanese market (U.S. sea urchin exports to Japan have increased from 540 metric tons (t) in 1984 to 1,740 t in 1988: Figure 1), foreign-processed roe remains unpopular, largely because of inconsistencies in quality and supply. The strict quality requirements of the Japanese market will necessitate higher standards on the part of U.S. sea urchin roe processors to guarantee export success.

Consumption Roe

Sea urchin roe is considered a delicacy in Japan, where it is primarily served raw in sushi. The Japanese name for sea urchin roe is uni." Most sea urchin roe buyers at Tokyo's Tsukiji Central Wholesale Market purchase for expensive traditional Japanese-style restaurants which demand extremely high quality in both appearance and taste.

Although some imported sea urchin roe is currently shipped to Hokkaido and northern Honshu for processing, inferior quality has prevented an increased market share for imported roe. The demand for sea urchin roe is seasonal, with the largest amount being consumed in December. Sea urchin roe is marketed in different product forms: Fresh (nama uni), frozen (reito uni), baked and frozen (yaki uni), steamed (mushi uni), and salted (shio uni). Salting is used primarily for lower-grade roe. Two fermented urchin roe products are also popular in Japan: Neri uni (a blended urchin paste) and tsubi uni (a lumpy paste). Live Urchin

Virtually no live imported sea urchin is sold at the Tsukiji Market. Buyers of live sea urchin usually prefer the domestic Japanese sea urchin which is limited in supply. Because of the difficulties in shipping and handling live, whole sea urchins, Japanese importers generally prefer to have the roe processed at the place of origin.


Japan imported 3,700 t of sea urchin in 1987, valued at about $100 million (Fig. 2, 3). Nearly half of the value was supplied by the Republic of Korea 1,110 t valued at 45.3 million), followed by the United States (1,560 t valued at $40.2 million), Canada (190 t valued at 4.2 million), and North Korea (250 t valued at $2.4 million). In 1988, imports from the United States amounted to 1,740 t, with a value of $54 million, becoming the fourth largest U.S. fishery export to Japan by value. Values were not available for 1988 Japanese urchin imports from other countries.


The highest priced sea urching products imported from the United States are the red sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus franciscanus, shipped from Los Angeles and from San Francisco. Processed roe from the New England green sea urchin, S. droedachiensis, ranks third in price on the Japanese market, and green sea urchin roe harvested in British Columbia, Canada, and Puget Sound, Washington, ranks fourth. Prices of Los Angeles-origin sea urchin roe as of March 1989 were 8.20-$40.98 per tray while British Columbia-origin roe brought only 4.92-$16.39 per tray. The wide price spread reflects the uneven quality of imported sea urchin roe.

The average wholesale price of live sea urchins from the U.S. west coast is around 10.00 per kg from October through April, but falls to around 6.00 per kg during the summer months when fear of food poisoning depresses consumer demand.

Quality Standards

Japanese consumers prefer pale yellow or orange roe over roe with mottled or dark brownish or redish color. Roe color is largely dependent on the diet, sex, and harvest time of the individual sea urchin. In the Sanriku area of Japan, sea urchin roe is steamed and therefore color is not as significant in determining quality and price. Roe from British Columbia is considered to be of inferior quality because the individual roe sacs, which are over 2 inches long, are too large for use in sushi.

Japanese processors look for a roe recovery rate of about 10 percent and require a minimum of 3 metric tons of live sea urchin per day to run their plants efficiently. Inconsistent roe color and recovery percentages and unreliable supply are Japanese processors' chief complaints against U.S.-produced sea urchin products. Because roe recovery percentage and color vary with fishing season and region, U.S. suppliers must pay careful attention to harvest techniques and be willing to adapt them to Japanese taste.


Tsukiji Market auction house experts advise that improvement in the quality of U.S.-processed sea urchin roe would enhance sales. Because the roe deteriorates quickly during shipment, they make the following recommendations:

1) Use only the best fresh roe. Deteriorated roe melts around the edges during the brining process and has a poor appearance.

2) Keep the temperatures of the processing room and the brine water low.

3) Drain the brine water well off the roe before putting it on the trays. Keep the roe color uniform in trays.

4) Avoid freezing at any point during shipment. Repeated freezing and thawing causes loss of firmness and poor appearance. (Source: IFR-89/36. Prepared by Karen Kelsky and Paul Niemeier of the NMFS Foreign Fisheries Analysis Branch, Silver Springs, MD 20910.)
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Publication:Marine Fisheries Review
Date:Jun 22, 1989
Previous Article:Korean fisheries and the Korea-U.S. fish trade.
Next Article:The Japanese abalone market.

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