With the increasing popularity of Japanese cuisine overseas, Japan's exports of farmed yellowtail had been rising -- but then the novel coronavirus pandemic struck and it remains to be seen if they will recover.
Those in the industry hope that with demand from Japanese restaurants abroad dropping, the key will be whether yellowtail farmers can expand sales directly to individual households.
Yellowtail is one of the most popular fish in Japan, where it is often broiled with soy sauce while also being used for sushi and sashimi.
It is also a prime example of the kind of export seen by the Japanese government as having great promise because of the boom in Japanese food overseas. The fish ranked seventh last year in terms of value among Japan's exports of agriculture and fisheries products.
Yellowtail exports totaled 22.9 billion yen ($216 million) in 2019, jumping 45.4 percent from a year earlier and more than fourfold from 5.5 billion yen in 2009, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
Waters off Miyazaki Prefecture have been a major farming area for yellowtail as they are rich in nutrients carried there by the Kuroshio Current, also known as the Black or Japan Current, running off the country's southern coastline.
"Yellowtail are at their best in winter, but we can ship them in summer as well," said Hiroto Kubota, sales planning assistant manager at Kurose Suisan Co., suggesting the fish can fetch a higher price in summer than in winter.
The fish farming company in Kushima in the southwestern Japan prefecture, which unloaded a total of about 2,000 yellowtail in early July, said it takes about two years to grow fish in cages in seawater.
Just like Kurose Suisan, other fishing companies and cooperatives have been making every effort to boost yellowtail exports.
Azuma-Cho Fishery Cooperative in Kagoshima Prefecture, southwestern Japan, has introduced a traceability system and now exports yellowtail to about 30 countries and territories.
The cooperative started exporting to the European Union in 2003, five years after the group obtained Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point certification, an international standard for food hygiene management known as HACCP, becoming the first Japanese fish farm to do so.
Similarly, Ehime Prefectural Fisheries Cooperative has developed a yellowtail brand that it ships to South Korea, the United States and other markets.
However, those in the fishing industry say the virus pandemic has reduced exports, caused stock to pile up and led to a sharp fall in prices.
In a bid to spur demand in overseas markets, some companies have been stepping up efforts to strengthen sales of frozen yellowtail products mainly targeted at households in foreign countries.
"We could ship more product if consumption of yellowtail grows in overseas households," said an official at Hyoshoku Co., a fishing company in Tsukumi, Oita Prefecture in southwestern Japan.
"We mainly export fresh fish now, but we may need to consider further investment in facilities so we can expand the shipment of frozen products."