Japanese buyers appear willing to pay top dollar for "trash fish" Mainers have been throwing away for years, if it can be packaged properly and shipped fresh.
Former Gov. Kenneth Curtis has returned from two weeks in Japan where he and businessman Walter Lachman scouted Japanese interest in Maine catches. Curtis says Tokyo importers "are extremely interested in Maine fishing. That includes investment here in fleets and packing houses."
While the state's fishing industry has failed to establish successful trade with Japan in the past, Curtis says Japanese demand is now so high "that it seems profitable."
A former Democratic National Committee chairman, Curtis has been working with Lachman's small importexport firm since his return to Maine. The two claim to be close to completing several different agreements for shipping fish and other foods to Japan. "I think they would be interested in potatoes, too," adds Curtis, "that is, if we could package them right."
For decades, Maine fishermen and industrialists have tried to export exotic species to Japan and other markets. But according to Brian Lynch of the Maine Fisheries Development Corp., shipping costs and packing problems have been major obstacles.
"A few years ago, one fellow was shipping baby American eels, the small transparent ones, to Japan," Lynch says. "For a while he was getting $300 per pound and they were raising them to adulthood in ponds over there. But the bottom fell out after only a few months when the Japanese found out they could get a different species a whole lot cheaper from China."
Mainers have also tried to ship tuna, squid, skates and dogfish. The skates were sent to England for fish and chips and dogfish is still being bought by Germans. The tuna and squid trade with Japan was shortlived, Lynch says, "because freshness and quality could not be maintained. The Japanese don't like to have their fish frozen."
Lynch reports that a new company has been established in Eastport and will start sending sea urchin roe to Japan sometime next year. The roe, which Lynch claims is more precious than caviar, is in great demand abroad. "But the Japanese," he adds, "like it packed a certain way, in specially sized cedar boxes. It's commonly used in a dish called sushi."
Packing would be an important part of any fish exporting industry Down East. Lynch says present packing houses do not have the capacity or the expertise to handle fish for shipment to Japan. "But there has been plenty of Japanese interest in investment here, especially for packing houses."
The fisheries consulting firm is researching a handful of exotic species. Experimenters are chasing squid at night with Japanese attraction lights and diving for sea urchins to see if they should be harvested by hand or by dragger.
Curtis adds, "Japan has an almost inexhaustible demand for food, especially fish. If you can match our ability to catch fish with their market you will have a very unusual business opportunity."
As he explains it, Japanese investors are seeking American goods to offset an increasing U.S. trade deficit with Japan. Curtis says Japanese businessmen want to balance trade by purchasing American goods rather than have the U.S. cut back purchases from Japan. "And what they really need is food."
Lachman has been working with Japanese trading houses, particularly Kyokuto, Boeki, Kaisha of Tokyo, since 1975. It was KBK that expressed an interest in Maine and New Hamp-shire investments.
"They have asked us to make some presentations for food trade agreement," Lachman said. The Japanese also are interested in making business investments here as they have on the U.S. West coast, he says.
Curtis says the 200-mile fishing boundary and U.S. balance of trade problems have created "a much better atmosphere" for foreign investment in Maine.
"As I understand it, Japanese ships are taking less fish because of the 200-mile limit," Courtis adds. "If Maine fishermen can catch the fish, Japan will buy it."