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Even Japan’s sushi makers are feeling the bite of Russia’s war

A fish vendor in Tokyo's Ueno area on Feb. 9. (Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images)
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TOKYO — Thousands of miles from the war in Ukraine, Japanese sushi restaurants and fish markets are feeling the pain of their country’s sanctions on Russia.

Prices of popular seafood and delicacies are soaring in Japan, a major importer of seafood from Russia, which sells salmon, crab, roe (fish eggs) and sea urchin at cheaper prices than sellers in Europe or Canada, or even some local fishermen.

But Japan’s limits on imports from Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine have thrown a wrench into the seafood supply chain in the island nation, where seafood is a staple — exacerbating the economic woes Japanese restaurants and vendors have endured from the pandemic.

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Seafood imports from Norway have also declined because of rerouted and canceled flights out of Europe after sanctions limited access to Russian airspace, according to Japanese media reports.

Restaurant owners and fish market vendors are also concerned about higher fuel prices following the invasion, and they worry about a prolonged impact from the sanctions.

The pressure on markets and eateries is not likely to abate soon, especially after Japan announced this week it will revoke Russia’s “most-favored nation” trade status, which would result in higher tariffs for imported seafood.

Already, some sushi restaurants are feeling the pain — including conveyor belt eateries, or fast-casual restaurants that serve affordable sushi, which are struggling to obtain some of their most sought-after ingredients, such as salmon, uni (sea urchin), ikura (salmon roe) and crab.

While larger chains can stockpile months of food, operators of smaller shops struggle to do so and have difficulty diversifying their suppliers and distributors, according to the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun.

“We unfortunately have had to stop serving our popular aurora salmon dish,” said an employee at Sushi Choshimaru, a conveyor belt restaurant in Tokyo. “It was being imported from Norway, but now it’s not possible because of the flights. So we’ve now switched to using frozen salmon products for the time being. Luckily, other products haven’t been affected so far, and we have a lot of stock.”

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Products from Russia made up 8.6 percent of all seafood imports in Japan last year, making Russia the third-largest exporter of seafood to Japan, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

For certain fish, however, including 79 percent of red salmon, 56 percent of crab and 47 percent of sea urchin imported into Japan, Russia is the dominant supplier.

Many seafood markets began relying on Russian imports of sea urchin particularly after last year’s rare red tide, a harmful algae bloom that discolors the water, killed sea urchin and salmon around Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.

In Hokkaido, which relies on Russian imports of crab, uni and salmon, sushi restaurants and seafood markets are increasing their prices. A sushi restaurant in Hokkaido that served two pieces of uni for 650 yen ($5) is now serving one piece for the same price, after switching to Canadian sea urchin that cost double the shipments from Russia.

Two of Japan’s largest conveyor belt sushi restaurants have raised concerns that while they have enough supply stockpiled at the moment, prolonged sanctions would eventually hurt them. Sushi Choshimaru plans to bring back the aurora salmon after finding a new route to import it from Norway, but the dish will be more expensive and served in limited amounts.

In Fukuoka, a prefecture in southwestern Japan famous for its mentaiko (pollock roe), companies are concerned about their access to Russian pollock. One company, Fukuya, said 80 percent of its pollock is imported from Russia.

Mentaiko season lasts from January through April, and manufacturers purchase a year’s supply of materials during those four months. While companies have stockpiled ingredients in March, industry officials said they are worried about prolonged sanctions that could limit their access to the materials they need in the final month of the season.

Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited Tokyo’s Toyosu wholesale fish market, one of the largest in the world, to meet with executives of companies that operate there. He remarked on the higher fish prices at the market and acknowledged that the Japanese government needs to take steps to mitigate the sanctions’ impact on local operators.

“I heard [from the business executives] that they are struggling amid a double whammy of the covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine crisis,” Kishida said in a briefing to reporters after the meeting. “A more detailed response [to the issues] is necessary.”