Nfld. & Labrador

How Newfoundland fish feeds Asia's seafood appetite

Newfoundland and Labrador is feeding Japan's insatiable appetite for herring roe, a delicacy served up in sushi restaurants across the country.

Herring roe from this province is a sought-after delicacy in Japan

Tokyo fish merchant Satoru Tadokoro sells herring roe from Newfoundland & Labrador. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Next to Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, the world's biggest, sits a small family-run shop that sells all kinds of fish roe.

Standing out front is Satoru Tadokoro who greets potential customers and handles the cash while his mom works behind the counter scooping roe into little containers.

There's a stream of people flooding by, a mix of Japanese and tourists, all here to check out the iconic market and the different eats at the ubiquitous shops and restaurants.

Tadokoro is ready for anyone who shows the smallest sign of interest.

On this day, in the centre of his display, is Canadian herring roe.

"The highest quality herring roe comes from Canada. " said Tadokoro.

Newfoundland and Labrador is one of the provinces that feeds Japan's appetite for the delicacy that gets served up in sushi restaurants across the country.

Selling more

In 2016, the province exported $44 million worth of seafood to Japan.

But that's just part of the bigger Asian picture.

Seafood exports to Asia have come a long way since the 1992 cod moratorium.

Back then, exports to all Asian countries were worth only $41.6 million, with Japan the biggest customer.  

Today, Japan is still an important part of the export picture but over the years business with other Asian countries has boomed.

Herring roe is an in-demand delicacy in Japan. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Together, Asian countries have grown in importance, with China now leading the pack, and are worth a third of an industry valued at more than $1 billion.

"I think the Asian market is critical. We've seen a tremendous amount of growth in the last couple years," said Carey Bonnell, head of the School of Fisheries at the Marine Institute.

"We have a Canada brand in particular that sells very well in that marketplace. Cold, crisp, clean waters."

Carey Bonnell is the head of the School of Fisheries at Marine Institute in St. John's. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Expanding through Asia

In his company's St. John's headquarters, Darrell Roche contemplates the future.

The vice president of Whitecap International has nearly two decades of fisheries experience and has been on the front lines of selling to Asia.

"We're exporting to more than 15 countries in Asia," said Roche.

"The biggest consumers of our products from Atlantic and eastern Canada are Japan, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Korea, Malaysia and Singapore."

Darrell Roche notes that several Chinese cities each have more than six million residents. (CBC)

His company is also doing business in Indonesia and Myanmar.

Roche has a long list of what is sold to those countries.

"Snow crab is the largest. Followed by cold-water shrimp, lobster, Greenland halibut or turbot as we know it here, redfish, whelks, pelagic species such as capelin, mackerel, herring … and many more such as herring roe."

It's a list that marks a difference from years ago.

Waste not

"One of the key things is that we're now making use of every species that we have."

What's more, he says that every part of every species is now being used. That includes selling things like roe, fish heads and fish tails.

Satoru Tadokoro in his small, family-run fish shop in Tokyo. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Roche gives an example of a product being sold in Japan; a jar of crab liver miso that's being used in Japanese-Italian cooking.

In a time of lowered quotas and questions about sustainability, Roche says it's crucial to be creative and to do more with less.

He says his company is looking at selling invasive species such as green crab.

"One of the things that we'd like to do as a company is to find ways that we can develop markets in China for those green crabs."

Finding those markets likely won't be a big problem. Asian countries are pursuing more trade with Canada.

A fish merchant in Tokyo. The average person in Asia consumes far more fish than the average North American. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Since the start of the free trade agreement between Canada and South Korea, the value of Newfoundland seafood exports to that country went from $3.2 million in 2015 to $7.6 million in 2016.

Plus, China has interest in a free trade agreement with Canada and Japan is trying to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership, involving 11 countries that border the Pacific, after U.S. President Donald Trump made good on his pledge to withdraw from it.

That means, there could be an even greater appetite for all types of seafood from Newfoundland. And it begs the question — are there are enough sustainable resources to feed it?

About the Author

Adam Walsh

CBC News

Adam Walsh is a CBC journalist. He works primarily for the St. John's Morning Show, and contributes to television and digital programming.