GLOBEFISH - Information and Analysis on World Fish Trade

Tuna - June 2014


Worldwide demand for canned and non-canned tuna remained low during the first quarter of 2014 and prices were under pressure.

Frozen skipjack price is nearly 50% lower this April compared with the same month last year. But demand from Asian canners remains weak due to high inventories, particularly in Thailand. Imports take place only to meet short-term needs, while tuna packers are anxious to clear their expensive stocks. In the sashimi tuna market, demand is weak and seasonal in the largest market, Japan. The USA is now the second largest importer of non-canned tuna after Japan.

Overview: Supply and prices in early 2014

 As of March 2014, catches in the Western and Central Pacific were moderate as the weather conditions were not conducive for fishing. In the Indian Ocean, there has been a drop in catches, with vessels mostly targeting skipjack on FADs. In the African side of the Atlantic Ocean, catches did not improve. 

The delivery price for frozen skipjack to Bangkok in early April 2014 remained weak at USD 1200–1250 per tonne, with these prices almost 50% lower compared with the same time last year, leading to high inventory for Thai tuna packers. Ex-vessel prices for skipjack in Manta dropped to USD 1 400 per tonne. Likewise, the skipjack price has fallen slightly to EUR 775 per tonne FOB Mahe.  In Abidjan, ex-vessel price of skipjack also declined to EUR 1 000 per tonne during the reporting period.

Due to low supply, the yellowfin price has increased to EUR 1 800 per tonne FOB Mahe in April 2014. European canners imported cooked, double-cleaned yellowfin loins at USD 8 200 per tonne, DDP Italy.

For sashimi, supplies of longline caught frozen tuna in Japan increased in January when the Taiwan Province of China and Chinese tuna boats landed their catch in the market before the Lunar New Year holiday. In early 2014, price of frozen bigeye tuna had weakened in the Japanese auction market but improved in April during the Spring Festival.

For farmed bluefin tuna, supplies from the Mediterranean Sea, Mexico and Japan have increased so far in 2014. Similarly, the Southern bluefin fisheries in Australia wrapped up the season with good harvests; 2014 supplies are expected to be higher than compared with other years.

Non-canned market (fresh and frozen)


Affected by the weak yen and rising prices of imported seafood, Japan’s overall seafood imports declined by 6.4% in quantity and 4.4% in value in 2013 compared with 2012. One of the main drivers behind this decline was the record low imports of both fresh and frozen tuna.

On a year-on-year comparison, imports of total tuna, fresh and frozen (including loins), were 8.62% lower in 2013 at 225 873 tonnes. Although frozen loin imports did increase marginally, supplies of whole dressed tuna were at a ten year low. Other than bluefin, imports of all types of fresh/chilled tuna were at a record low in 2013, leading to an 11% decline in total fresh/chilled tuna imports in 2013 compared with the previous year.

Taking a longer-term perspective demonstrates that this is a continuing trend; from 2004 to 2013, Japan has seen a 52% decline in fresh tuna imports, a clear sign of an overall shrinking demand in the sashimi market. This weakening demand is due in large part to changing preferences of younger Japanese consumers. In addition, salmon has emerged as a strong competitor in both the sashimi and non-sashimi market.  

For frozen tuna imports, 2013 also saw declining overall imports (-11.5%) compared with 2012. Again, if looking at the larger picture this decline is more significant; when comparing 2013 with  2004, frozen tuna imports were 51% less by value.

For red meat quality frozen tuna loins, Japanese imports weakened marginally in 2013 compared with 2012 but remained higher than in previous years. Although supplies increased from the Republic of Korea, China and Viet Nam, reduced exports from Fiji and Indonesia caused an overall negative trend for imports. For bluefin frozen loins, imports in 2013 increased by over 3 000 tonnes compared with 2012, indicating the Japanese market’s preference for frozen loins compared with air-flown fresh/chilled tuna.

Since late February 2014, heavy snowfall affected local and imported supplies of fresh tuna in the Japanese sashimi market. Furthermore, consumer demand during this time shifted to warm dishes, reducing sales of sashimi tuna in the restaurant and retail sectors. In the frozen sashimi tuna market, lower sales were observed for the popular red meat tuna (bigeye and yellowfin) during the year-end festival season in 2013. This was a result of increased availability of bluefin tuna, as prices were significantly lower than compared with other years.


Demand for fresh tuna in the US market remained steady in 2013, though overall fresh imports experienced a drop of 14.8% in 2013 compared with 2012. Consumer preference for fresh red meat tuna, namely yellowfin and bigeye, remained high. Though imports of yellowfin increased only marginally, imports of bigeye increased by 33.3% in 2013 compared with 2012. Imports of bluefin tuna increased by 20%. Overall, with nearly 22 000 tonnes of fresh tuna imported in 2013, US imports came close to the volume imported by the world’s largest sashimi market, Japan, which imported 27 191 tonnes of fresh tuna in 2013. This makes the US non-canned tuna market come in second in imports only after Japan. Interestingly, most of the red meat tuna imported into the USA enters the `tuna steak’ market segment. 

US imports of raw frozen tuna loin meant for non-canning uses declined by 9% to 18 384 in 2013, due to reduced catches in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. Supplies increased only from Indonesia and Viet Nam, which mostly supplied treated products. Consumer demand remained stable, with the average import price varying between USD 10.40 (Sri Lanka) to USD 12.50 (Philippines) per kg. Imports from Japan consisted of the high value frozen bluefin loins for which the average import price was more than USD 28 per kg.

In the canning market, imports of cooked frozen loins for canning purposes were 5.3% higher in 2013 than compared with 2012.


International trade of frozen tuna in China has increased significantly over the years and according to national data, exports in 2013 grew by nearly 41%. Skipjack was the main species in both export and imports. At the same time, more than 80 000 tonnes of frozen tuna were imported into the Chinese market in 2013, which is a 29% increase compared with 2012. The majority of these imports were re-processed into cooked loins, for which the major clients were canned tuna producers in the USA, Thailand and in the EU. In 2013, China exported over 73 000 tonnes of processed tuna (cooked loins and canned products tuna) to the global market.

Canned tuna


The US market for canned tuna continued to be stagnant despite early optimism that the market would revive due to increasing consumer confidence and declining prices. Demand for traditional canned tuna in brine remained flat while demand for pouched tuna increased thanks to the introduction of various new and convenient products on the market. These trends were mirrored in the total US imports of canned tuna in 2013; while canned tuna imports declined by 3.6%, imports of tuna in pouches increased by 6.6% when compared with 2012. Ecuador took advantage of the demand situation in 2013, supplying 17.6% more tuna in pouches to the US market. Nevertheless, Thailand maintained its position as the number one supplier of both canned and pouch tuna.

To drive growth, major packers have been launching innovative products to expand their product line and penetrate new market segments. For instance, targeting the younger consumer demographic, Bumble Bee Foods launched its new ‘Heritage Pack’, a premium-quality product which  emphasizes healthy and simple eating with minimal ingredients, only solid white albacore or yellowfin tuna, spring water and a pinch of salt (priced at USD 3.18 per 7-oz can). Smaller companies, such as the American Tuna brand, seek to differentiate itself by focusing on sustainable fishing practices and high quality.

In recent news, the WTO has agreed to Mexico’s request to set up a panel in a renewed attempt to settle a dispute with the USA over American “dolphin safe” labels. 


The European canned tuna market improved in 2013 as a result of growing demand. In addition, packers have been more aggressive in promoting new, convenient and sustainable products. Strong commitment from major retailers and packers has resulted in improved demand for pole and line, FAD free caught tuna as well as other certified canned tuna products.

Demand for canned tuna in the major EU markets grew positively in 2013. Volumes of canned tuna imports into the UK, France and Germany increased by 9%, 9.8% and 8.6% respectively in 2013 compared with the previous year. Major growth included French imports from the Seychelles (+13%), German imports from Ecuador (+53%) and UK imports from Thailand (53.8%).

In Italy,  though canned tuna imports were lower in 2013 compared with 2012, more pre-cooked tuna loins were shipped into the country, mainly from Ecuador (+15.2%). In Spain,  Papua New Guinea shipped more pre-cooked tuna loins (+31.8%) in 2013 compared with 2012, despite the fact that Spain has been a strong critic of their tuna industry.

For the first quarter of 2014, European markets for canned tuna remained slow with no major deals reported as buyers continue to look for a more substantial discount. By the end of March 2014, canned skipjack in brine was quoted at around USD 41-42 per carton (48x185g), which some traders believe is a bottom price that is likely to increase once major supermarket chains start filling their stocks.


2013 was a tough year for the Thai canned tuna industry due to declining demand from major markets in the USA and the Middle East and high raw tuna material prices, which peaked at almost USD 2 400 per tonne in April 2013. As a result, exports of canned tuna from Thailand in 2013 declined marginally by 3.7% in volume and 5.3% in value compared with 2012. Shipments to the USA, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia dropped sharply by 13.6%, 44.9%, 19.2% and 21.4% respectively compared with the previous year. However, exports to major markets in Europe, posted positive growth for the year, including to the UK (+140.8%), France (+43.7%) and the Netherlands (+42.6%). Interestingly, exports in 2013 to the war-torn Syrian Arab Republic also increased significantly by 44.5% in volume compared with 2012. 

Despite low prices, slow demand for raw tuna material from Thai packers has continued to result in declining imports into Thailand in the first quarter of 2014. According to Thai Customs data, imports of frozen whole skipjack into Thailand from January to February 2014 were recorded at around 98 000 tonnes, a 26% decrease when compared with the same period in 2013.


In Japan, volumes of canned and prepared/preserved tuna imports posted negative growth in 2013 compared with 2012 (-3.5%), but increased by 15.2% in value. Thailand dominated the market with a 70% share in total imports, posting 2% growth in 2013. The Philippines took over Indonesia as the second largest supplier; shipments from the latter dropped sharply by 23.6%, while supplies from the Philippines contracted by 4.7% from 2013 to 2012. These three countries dominated the Japanese market in 2013, covering more than 97% of the total canned tuna imports into Japan.


With poor catches in the WCPO and the approaching FAD ban period (July–September), prices of both frozen skipjack and canned tuna are expected to bottom up soon. The market forecast indicates better demand in the coming months, with reduced prices for canned tuna and improved consumer confidence in the US and European markets.  In Japan, the Spring Festival has pushed sales of sashimi tuna and demand is expected to be strong in April and May. However, competition from cheaper fresh and frozen salmon will remain a challenge.

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