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Tuna Farming Business in Japan

Provide safe, secure, and delicious tuna to dining tables, while preserving resources

December 2013

*Affiliations and titles are current as of the time of the posting of this article.

Because of its scarcity, bluefin tuna is called the "diamond of the seas." . As over-fishing became an issue of growing concern, international regulations on fishing in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans have become increasingly strict since the 2000s. Sojitz thought, "In that case, why not farm tuna in Japan?"  This is a project story about the first ever bluefin tuna farming business launched by a major trading company.

[News Release] Sojitz to Enter the Tuna Farming Business

Origins of the project

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Preserve at Sojitz Tuna Farm Takashima
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Sojitz established Sojitz Tuna Farm Takashima Co., Ltd. in September 2008 as a bluefin tuna farmer. Sojitz was the first major trading company to invest directly in the tuna farming business in Japan. Sojitz's fisheries business has long been the major trader in Japan in the field of imported frozen tuna for sashimi. Sojitz, however, felt a sense of crisis concerning international fishing regulations, and supplies decreased because of falling bluefin tuna resources. This was the background to the Company launching a farming business. "Trading companies must promote the farming business in order to secure aquatic resources for stable supply," says Junya Hanzawa who was in charge of the project when Sojitz Tuna Farm Takashima was established. Sojitz already dealt in farm fattened bluefin tuna from the Mediterranean Sea and accumulated knowledge that could be utilized for farming, which prompted the Company to start the business.

Locational Advantage

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Shigehisa Miyazaki, Manager of Marine Business Section, Foodstuffs Department
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The farming site Sojitz selected was located in the sea 500 meters offshore of Takashima-cho, Matsuura City in Nagasaki Prefecture. The location is advantageous in terms of fish feed and transportation infrastructure. Feed for tuna include blue-skinned fish such as mackerel and sardines caught by purse seine fishing. There is a major purse seine fishing base in Matsuura and ocean-fresh feed is readily available at relatively low cost, which makes Takashima one of the best locations nationwide in procurement of feed. In addition, completion in 2009 of the Takashima Hizen Ohashi Bridge connecting Takashima, formerly an isolated island, and Kyushu reduced access time to just 1.5 hours from the Fukuoka city center, making Takashima most advantageous.
In winter, the water temperature is as low as 12 degrees, and while strong west winds and raging waves may be disadvantageous for preserves and feeding work, the flow of the strong current which comes from the Sea of Genkai keeps dissolved oxygen levels in the water high. Shigehisa Miyazaki, former president of Tuna Farm Takashima until the end of 2012, said, "Thanks to the low water temperature and strong current flow, the farm's bluefin tuna flesh is firm with a lot of fat on the skin. It is very close to high-quality wild bluefin tuna with no bad odor."

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Days of Trial and Error: Many Attempts Leading up to Reliable Performance

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Miyazaki holds a degree in agricultural and was originally a sales representative for machinery. "I am fish fanatic and have always loved fish. If I have some spare time, I go fishing and clean the fish I catch to eat them," says Miyazaki. When Sojitz conducted in-house recruiting for tuna fish farming personnel, Miyazaki was more than happy to apply.

Miyazaki recalls, "Building collaborative relations with the local fishing industry was the key to successful establishment of the company." There were some concerns that tuna farming would have an impact upon the torafugu, or tiger puffer fish, farming of which was extensively developed in Takashima. Under these circumstances, however, the local fishermen's union accepted the company as a member and the members kindly provided very helpful advice on matters such as the size and shape of preserves, feeding methods, and so on. The Company also made efforts to establish mutually beneficial relationships with the local fishermen by, for example, offering diving services by qualified employees upon request from the fishermen. "It was a time of trial and error for us, and we were so thankful to and encouraged by the full support from the fishermen's union," Miyazaki says with appreciation.

Even with this support, the tuna farming business, the first such undertaking by Sojitz, faced many struggles from its inception until today. Tuna cultivation begins with yokowa (juvenile fish that weigh several hundred grams) put in the preserves. It takes three years before the juvenile fish become adults that weigh more than 30 kilograms. The survival rate of juvenile fish itself is quite low and raising them to adult tuna is no easy matter. Tuna can die as a result of a sharp drop of water temperature or from colliding with the sides of the preserve, and they also jump out of the preserve and swim into the open sea. There were a number of trials. During the process of tackling these issues and making improvements, there were new discoveries and then additional problems to overcome arose. This process was repeated continually.

The company accumulated experience and began to yield results, with the first shipping finally being made at the end of 2010. The shipping volume, however, was below the original plan. Rigorous demands arrive almost daily from the head office asking questions such as "can you really turn a profit?" After those difficult days, the production volume increased steadily, and the fish haul for the fiscal 2013 is projected to reach some 300 tons. The tuna farming project is expected to make a significant contribution to revenue from now on.

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Junya Hanzawa, formerly in charge of the project when Sojitz Tuna Farm Takashima was established.
It was January 2007 that feasibility studies concerning domestic farming business were started in order to cultivate safe and secure tuna for the future of tuna resources. As we proceeded with our investigations, we came to understand the huge differences in working methods and business partners from the import and sale of foreign tuna to which we were accustomed. Our job included coordination and cooperation with partners such as fishermen, feed companies, materials suppliers, public administration, accountants, the local fishermen's union, and researchers as well as recruiting employees, establishing company rules and regulations, making business plans, cash management, and more.
Major sources of funds were needed because it takes three years before tuna become adult fish. It seemed we had a long way to go even before we started the business, because everything was new to us. But we were totally committed to the project and confident that we would carry it through. With the help and cooperation of people inside and outside of the Company, we finally made a start.

Nature is Also a Business Partner

The highest risk of the business was nature. Typhoons could damage the preserves or make it difficult to procure juvenile fish. "We cannot prevent the effects of nature, but we must make the business resilient. To become resilient to risks, one important thing we must do is to set up a mutual support network with various organizations including other farms. If Sojitz builds trust with other organizations and forms a dynamic cooperative group, if we have a bad catch, we can procure juvenile fish from other farms that have extra. If a typhoon hits and we are unable to ship our tuna, some other farms may provide us with their tuna to meet delivery dates. Such a network serves to mitigate nature-oriented risks. We believe this is something that a farming business affiliated with a trading company like Sojitz can do," says Miyazaki.

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Recent Environment around Bluefin Tuna

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Procurement of juvenile fish for farming is becoming unstable, and Sojitz is taking up a new challenge: artificial breeding of juvenile fish. Sojitz conducts joint research with Kinki University, which succeeded in wholly-cultivated tuna farming for the first time in Japan.
Steadily provide safe, secure, and delicious tuna to dining tables while preserving resources and contributing to the community as a new industry: This is what Miyazaki and Sojitz aspire to. There are still many challenges that must be addressed before achieving this goal.

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Staff of Sojitz Tuna Farm Takashima

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