GLOBEFISH - Information and Analysis on World Fish Trade

Tuna - August 2011


Rising raw material prices and political uncertainty make for nervous markets.

The supply of tuna is slow at present, with the closure of the some areas of the Western Pacific and the completion of the bluefin tuna fishing season in the Mediterranean, but canned tuna sales have shown some growth in the first months of 2011.


Tuna catches in the Western Pacific Ocean are seasonally low following the Fish Aggregating Device (FAD) closure during July-September. The Solomon Islands has closed its Exclusive Economic Zone to foreign purse seiners and Papua New Guinea is expected to follow, forcing purse seiners to fish in less convenient fishing grounds. As a management measure, PNA countries have announced that they will use the Vessel Days Scheme for the purse seiner fisheries in their Exclusive Economic Zones. This measure will be tested during this period of slow fishing and high prices. With the construction of four new canneries and tuna processing plants, Papua New Guinea aims to overtake the Philippines to become a major tuna processing country, second only to Thailand. Up to 1 330 tonnes daily production is forecast in the next three years. Under an Economic Partnership Agreement, Papua New Guinea is able to sell tuna and tuna by-products to the EU tariff free, and also to source tuna from anywhere in the world,providing EU sanitary and IUU regulations are adhered to. Canneries in Spain, in particular in Galicia, are concerned about the effect this will have on prices in the EU market as well as on the potential loss of jobs in local canneries. Fishing in the Indian Ocean by the Spanish and the French purse seiner fleets has also been relatively slow. The price in West Africa increased following the resolution of the political unrest in Cote d’Ivoire and also as a result of unfavourable catches. The high raw material inventories in Spain, resulting from the closure of factories in Abidjan, prevented prices from increasing there. The cooked and cleaned frozen tuna loins market was steady at USD 5 600 DDP Italy for skipjack loins and USD 7 800 per tonne for yellowfin loins. In Bangkok, the import price of frozen skipjack has been high and stable at USD 1 900/tonne for the last 2-3 months. Although buyers’ resistance is high on further price rises, some predict it may hit USD 2 000/tone.


Most tuna catches in the coastal waters of Japan were lower in the early months of 2011, affected by the Tohuku earthquake. However, overall and including distant water fishing, landings rose by 22% during January - March. Bluefin, bigeye and yellowfin catches were lower but the 85% increase in albacore and 37% rise in skipjack landings contributed to the higher figure of 78 480 tonnes. Spring sales were much lower this year. For the first time in 62 years, the famous Ueno Park Cherry Blossom festival in Tokyo was cancelled, which shows the level of austerity taking place in Japan after the Tohoku Earthquake. The festival demand only picked up during the five-day Golden Week festival in early May. Festival demand for high quality fatty toro of bluefin tuna was very low. Fewer foreign tourists, particularly from China and the Republic of Korea, during this year’s Spring festival also affected business in high-end restaurants and hotels. As a result, the price of bluefin from the Mediterranean and other sources did not increase much in April and May. Supplies of fresh/chilled bigeye and yellowfin are low from Indonesia because of market diversification to China. Consumer demand has been seasonally low during the rainy and hot months of June and early July. Only the bonus-week in late June encouraged good sales. Japanese supermarkets have also lowered the retail prices of various tuna packs to attract consumers during the low consumption season. They are also focusing on the red meat quality tuna and using very limited bluefin, farmed or wild. Bluefin is used in the mixed pack of sushi trays only and not much for sashimi or saku (tuna bars).


The first quarter imports of fresh and frozen tuna and tuna loins/fillet in 2011 fell significantly after the earthquake and tsunami. But import value was much higher at JPY 46.53 billion compared with last year’s JPY 38.75 billion as supplies of frozen Mediterranean bluefin fillet from Malta and Croatia increased significantly. In contrast supplies of whole/dressed fresh bluefin declined to half that of last year’s while the import volume of frozen bluefin was almost same as 2010. There were also significant drops in southern bluefin and skipjack imports.


Air-flown tuna imports: The sharp drop in bigeye supplies (-53.36%) caused lower overall imports of airflown tuna into the US market during the first quarter of the year. Fresh bigeye tuna supplies fell from almost all Latin American sources. Otherwise, imports were stable or even higher for the other species, particularly for yellowfin. Imports of frozen tuna loins, fillets and steaks were 4.8 % lower at 4 842 tonnes during this period compared with 5 090 tonnes in 2010. Demand from the catering trade is expected to be higher in summer, which may result in more imports during the second quarter of the year. During the first five months of 2011, total US tuna imports volumes fell 3% to 139 200 tonnes with values rising 8% to 589 million USD.

Canned tuna 

Global canned tuna market is overshadowed by the rising raw material price, political unrest in the Middle East and growing pressure from green groups to retailers to sell only “sustainable” tuna products. At the end of June, the skipjack price touched USD 1 950 – 2 000 per tonne, cfr Bangkok, up from USD 1 650 in April. Tuna packers are anxiously waiting to see the impact of the 3 months ban for the Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) starting 1 July in the WCPO. While sales of canned tuna show signs of recovery in the USA, canned tuna trade into major markets in the Middle East is badly affected by the unfavourable political situation.

Positive growth in the US retail sales 

Canned tuna sales in the US market posted a slight increase in the first five months of this year as the economy showed some signs of recovery, and at the same time industry players have launched an aggressive campaign to revive the stagnant demand. “Tuna the Wonderfish” marketing campaign launched early this year has shown some positive results in terms of increasing sales and improving consumers’ awareness. According to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm, canned tuna unit sales in the US market totaled 369.8 million units from 1 January to 15 May, up 4.23% from the same period in 2010. The unit sales data applies to all canned tuna sold in the US supermarkets, drug stores and mass-market retailers, excluding Wal-Mart. Canned tuna’s price per unit also grew 0.07% to USD 1.23 per unit during the period. Meanwhile, based on the initial assessment by the Tuna Council of the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), consumers who have seen the campaign are buying more tuna and are 30% more likely to try new ways to prepare tuna than those who have not experienced the campaign. Another survey found that consumers who were aware of the ads purchased, on average, 1.5 more cans of tuna in a month (for an average of 6.9 cans each) than those who had not seen the ads. The campaign is largely sponsored by the main canned tuna suppliers in the US namely Starkist, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea and is set to run for three years The increasing retail sales, however, were not immediately reflected in the import trend. After experiencing strong growths for the past few years, imports of canned and pouched tuna into the USA experienced a slight decline in quantity this year, but values were higher reflecting the rising raw material price and production costs. In the latest data available up to April 2011, canned and pouched tuna imports into the US totaled 78 297 tonnes valued at USD 264.3 million, marginally declining year-on-year.

The declining imports affected both traditional canned products and also tuna in pouches. During the first quarter of 2011 canned tuna imports (excluding pouches) declined by 2.7% in quantity against the same period of 2010. Similarly imports of tuna in pouch also significantly dropped by 15.6% this year. The pending renewal of the Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), which expired this year, has partly affected the import of tuna in pouch from Ecuador. This declined by 12.3% in quantity during the reporting period. The ATPDEA provided for zero import duty for Ecuadorian tuna in pouch entering the US market, but now the product will attract 12.5% duty because the agreement has expired. Lower supply from Ecuador (-13.8%), however, did not give advantage to its main rival Thailand, as import from the latter also declined (-16.7%). Meanwhile, a court of the World Trade Organization (WTO), ruled that the dolphin safe label requirements imposed by the United States on imports of Mexican canned tuna do not comply with the international trade regulations. The WTO said that the dolphin safe label, granted by the US government in order to protect dolphins, has been denied to Mexican fishermen in a discriminatory manner. Although it is possible to export Mexican canned tuna to the US and place it on the market - mainly sold in small Latin shops - none of the major retailers in the country are putting Mexican tuna on their shelves because they do not carry the dolphin safe label. For this same reason, none of the three largest US canned tuna suppliers, StarKist, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea buy Mexican tuna.

Europe: Growing private labels 

The rising prices, coupled with the economic and financial crisis in some European countries have taken a toll on the EU canned tuna markets as consumers are looking for cheaper alternatives. EU importers are squeezed by higher offer prices from overseas, which cannot be easily passed on to price sensitive consumers. Tuna packers in the EU are also struggling to compete with cheaper private (supermarket) brands whose market share is growing. Private labels of canned tuna products are mainly imported from third countries, which posted positive growth for the first quarter of the year. During January-March 2011, imports of canned tuna (including tuna in pouch but excluding pre-cooked tuna loins) from third countries into the EU-27, increased by 5.1% in quantity and 17.1% in value over the same period of 2010 amounting to 84 698 tonnes valued at EUR 246.3 million (USD 357 million). Thailand managed to increase its exports by 28.6% overtaking Ecuador as the largest supplier of canned tuna to the EU this year (up to March).

In Germany, being a price sensitive market, importers are nervously watching the rising raw material price. For the period January-March, imports were up marginally over last year’s with more supplies from Indonesia, PNG and Thailand. The UK canned tuna market is under serious pressure from environmentalist groups particularly targeting retailers to sell only products from sustainable sources. As a result major retailers such as Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s, Asda and Tesco have announced a change to their sourcing policies for their own-brand canned tuna and will make sure the fish is caught using the pole and line method or is sourced in ways excluding fish aggregating devices (FADs) in the future. Tuna packer Princes also committed to sell only free FAD and from pole and line fishing of canned tuna by 2014. The negative campaign did not have much effect on imports, which increased by 15.5% during the first quarter of 2011. The French canned tuna market, traditionally supplied by African sources, also imported more tuna, particularly from Spain (+84.6%) and Thailand (+33.3%). Spain overtook Cote I’Ivoire as the number one suppler for the period under review. Spain also dominates Italian imports. A 12.1% increase in imports during January-March 2011 was recorded, compared with the same period last year. The better performance of Spanish canned tuna exports is reflected in its imports of pre-cooked tuna loins raw material, which increased by 31.8% against the previous year. The drop in imports from Ecuador was well covered by a sharp increase in supply from Thailand, which has doubled its shipments this year.

Japan-Growing demand after tsunami 

The giant earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March prompted higher consumer demand for prepared products including canned tuna. During January- March, 2011, canned tuna imports into Japan increased by 10.9%. Supplies from Thailand increased by 30.2% but declined from Indonesia and the Philippines.

Thailand-set back in the Middle East markets 

Canned tuna exports from Thailand to Middle East markets have suffered a set back this year as a result of the political turmoil in the region. Exports to Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Algeria and Saudi Arabia dropped by 13.9%, 6.8%, 42.7%, 10.8% and 14.3% respectively in quantity during the first quarter of 2011 against the same period of the previous year. Similarly, exports to the US, the largest market, also declined by 5.2% in quantity after experiencing consistent growth over the past years. The declines, however, were well compensated by more exports to the Japanese, Canadian , Australian and UK markets. Over all canned tuna exports from Thailand increased by 3.7% during the first quarter of 2011 compared with last year. Meanwhile Thai Union Frozen Plc (TUF), the world’s largest canned tuna producer, reported a 9% fall in net profit in the first quarter of 2011 to THB 752.8 million (USD 25 million) from THB 831.2 million (USD 27.7 million) last year. The drop was due to the highly volatile raw material prices of skipjack, a stronger baht, a higher interest burden and expenses related to the acquisition of MW Brands. However, its sales rose significantly by 49% in US dollar terms to USD 743 million compared with USD 498 million in the first quarter of 2010. Tuna products, in particular, reported significant sales growth both in volume and value terms by 52% and 82% respectively, thanks to the acquisition of MW Brands.


The tuna industry in the Philippines is suffering from high production costs and high raw material costs, and, as a result, canned tuna production in General Santos City is diminishing rapidly. Some fear it will disappear altogether. The issues facing the Philippines are also being felt globally, with high fuel costs, reduced catches, changing weather patterns and challeging tuna trade issus worldwide. Resistance to higher prices is becoming apparent in many markets. However, the campaign in the USA to stimulate demand for canned tuna seems to be effective already and, as it will continue for three years, demand should grow in the future. Another positive sign for the future is the growth in demand for canned tuna in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami - showing that canned tuna can be relied on as a safe and stable product in difficult times.

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