It’s not Godzilla. But a smaller, more succulent beast is emerging from the Pacific Ocean that could spell problems for the Port of New Bedford: 18 million pounds of imported Japanese scallops.

The 2023 scallop season ends this month, and it has been a challenging one for New Bedford’s most lucrative industry. It’s marked by increasing costs for vessel owners, fewer days at sea for fishermen and the lowest annual harvest in more than a decade. 

It’s part of a natural cycle in the fishery, reflecting a recent decline in scallop populations along the East Coast. But unlike previous years, where fewer scallop landings have meant higher prices — balancing out the impact on seafood companies and their fishermen — this year, scallop prices have remained in an unexpected slump. 

Through the “pandemic years,” as New Bedford scallopers fondly recall, 10-20 count scallops reached an unprecedented high, sometimes climbing over $30 per pound while remaining at an average of over $16. Through 2023, scallops of the same count dipped under $11 per pound and averaged around $13, according to data from New Bedford’s public seafood auction, the Buyers and Sellers Exchange (BASE).

“Japan’s government is making a targeted effort to push as many scallops as they can into the U.S. That competes directly with our scallops here.” 

Drew Minkiewicz, a D.C. attorney who represents commercial fishing and shipping interests

It’s an economic equation that has both frustrated and confused fishermen, vessel owners and industry regulators. Each is hesitant to draw conclusions on the complexities of the global seafood trade. But they say one trend stands out. Imported scallops have been flooding into the domestic market. They are coming from Canada, Peru and Argentina — but none in recent years more than from Japan. 

The reason traces back to a crippled nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan. 

The Fukushima power plant suffered a core meltdown during a deadly earthquake in 2011. And in August of last year, Japan began discharging radioactive water into the ocean as part of its plan to decommission the wrecked plant. The move drew protests from neighboring countries like China, which claimed Japan was treating the ocean like a private sewer.  China responded by imposing a ban on all Japanese seafood products. Russia and South Korea followed suit with their own bans. 

The loss of Japan’s main buyers put Japanese seafood prices in freefall. Exports declined by 90% over the previous year. And their scallop prices took an extra hit. Even though the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog group said effects on seafood near the nuclear discharge area will be “significantly below any public health concern,” some concern remains, especially for filter feeders, like scallops, which are more sensitive to pollution. 

Japanese trade groups responded by launching a public relations campaign, seeking to break into other markets and polish the reputation of their seafood. Efforts focused on the U.S., with television commercials on major networks, like CNN, advertising the “rich taste of scallops,” according to the Japan Times. 

The campaign worked. 

Scallop imports from Japan to the U.S. have skyrocketed. In 2020, just under 5 million pounds of frozen scallops were shipped from Japan into the United States, according to NOAA’s import database. Each year since, that number has doubled. In 2022, almost 18 million pounds of scallops were imported from Japan, valued at $167 million.

Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, landed a deal to supply U.S. military bases in Japan with scallops and other Japanese seafood products. Japan is an ally, he said, and it is important to support one of their major industries in a challenging moment. 

“In America we have a saying about being a good neighbor,” Emanuel said, according to the military news service Stars and Stripes. “This is being a good neighbor.”

The recent spike in Japanese scallop imports is a complex political tangle. But in the U.S. seafood trade, distributors aren’t buying Japanese scallops to be neighborly, as Emanuel put it. 

“It’s business,” said Drew Minkiewicz, a D.C. attorney who represents commercial fishing and shipping interests. “Japan’s government is making a targeted effort to push as many scallops as they can into the U.S. That competes directly with our scallops here.” 

Japanese scallops are significantly cheaper than U.S. scallops, industry leaders said, and made even cheaper by the Chinese import ban. That bites into domestic prices. And with the domestic scallop harvest declining by almost 50% in the last few years, the cheaper imports are beginning to not only supplement domestic supply chains — they are beginning to replace them. 

“Japanese prices are down, which affects our prices,” said Roy Enoksen, founder of New Bedford-based Eastern Fisheries, among the largest scallop distributors in the world. “But the real problem is that the resource here is beat up. We don’t have enough days at sea, so we can’t get the production we need.” 

New Bedford has ranked as the nation’s top-earning commercial fishing port for more than two decades. Over $440 million worth of seafood landed on the harbor last year. Scallops are vital to the port’s economy, accounting for about 80% of all seafood landed on the docks. 

In 2020, domestic scallop landings exceeded 50 million pounds, according to NOAA’s database. Since then, regulators have tightened restrictions on the number of days scallopers are allowed to fish, citing concern about declining scallop populations. Last year, the domestic landings dipped to about 25 million pounds. Buyers said that the domestic supply is now not enough to keep up with demand. 

“The buyers have orders to fill,” said Cassie Canastra, who runs BASE, New Bedford’s public seafood auction, which is center stage in the domestic scallop trade. “Without the supply here, the demand is going to be filled with what’s available … That’s going to have an impact on prices.” 

Despite declining prices for fishermen, retail prices have remained high. Fulton Fish Market in New York, one of the nation’s largest retail distributors, lists New Bedford scallops online at $38 a pound. That’s a mark up of over $20 per pound on the price paid at the dock. Meanwhile, fishermen and vessel owners are feeling the impact of declining prices and a shorter harvest. 

“The government is not the fisherman’s friend,” said New Bedford scallop vessel owner Tony Alvernaz. He said that of his six boats fishing last year, only one was able to turn a profit. And with increased fuel, labor and maintenance costs, he says, “there are boat owners out there, especially new owners, that are barely paying off their mortgage. How does that make sense? The prices should be higher.”

“It goes right down the line,” said Eric Hansen, who owns two New Bedford scallopers and sits on the regional fisheries management council. “It’s less income to be shared here.” 

The 2024 fishing year, which begins in April, is expected to follow a similar pattern, fishermen and distributors said. But Enoksen, who has been in business for five decades, said these swings are typical in the fishing industry. Though prices have declined in recent years, he said demand is still steady, and he has hopes that it will swing in the other direction once the scallop population rebounds. 

“We have to hope that the resource is going to get better, that we’ll get a good spawning cycle,” he said. “That’s what we’ll need.” 

Article courtesy of Will Sennott and The New Bedford Light. Read more here.

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