High-priced raw materials in 2017 weakened demand for canned tuna


In the large traditional markets, conventional products are losing consumer appeal while high-value products including non-canned tuna are gaining bigger niches.

Raw material supply

Global supply of tuna canning material was lower in 2017 compared with 2016. Landings were disappointing in the Western and Central Pacific region during the first half of the year. This region accounts for two-thirds of the world skipjack resources. Catches declined further during July–October FAD fishing closure, when skipjack price shot up to USD 1 900–2 400 per tonne CFR Bangkok, following some increase in demand from Thai canneries. Catch improved starting in November 2017 and prices started to soften reaching USD 1 700 per tonne by the end of the review period, matching the weaker demand for canned tuna in Europe and North America.

Catch was moderate to good in the Eastern Pacific region, benefiting the canneries in Manta, Ecuador. In this region, two sets of 2-month IATTC Veda fishing closures were in place from November 2016 to 18 January 2017 and 29 July to 8 October 2017, when 64 percent of the fishing fleet participated in the fishing ban.
In the Indian Ocean, landings were moderate and without much fluctuation in 2017, which allowed higher transhipment of frozen tuna to Thailand and Ecuador. Frozen tuna inventories in Thailand, which were mostly imported, were healthy in 2017 due to lower demand for processed tuna from the global market. Compared with 2016, total imports of frozen raw material for canning was 7 percent lower in 2017 at 648 900 tonnes. Imports of skipjack declined by 10.4 percent at 473 800 tonnes, but yellowfin imports were marginally higher at 121 900 tonnes (+1.5 percent). Following the increased demand for canned albacore in the US market, frozen albacore imports increased by a hefty 35 percent at 43 700 tonnes.
In 2017, Spain imported 165 900 tonnes of frozen skipjack, yellowfin and albacore, and 84 500 tonnes of cooked tuna loins for reprocessing.

Fresh and frozen tuna market (non-canned)

Global demand for non-canned tuna has been better than for canned tuna, in particular for frozen loins, fillets and steaks. Prices remained stable in the international trade during 2017 and there were increased imports to the United States of America, Japan and to the EU28, compared with 2016.

United States of America

The United States of America imported 2.6 percent more non-canned tuna from Asia and Latin America in 2017 than in 2016 (revised data: 57 900 tonnes), nearly 60 000 tonnes of fresh and frozen tuna (dressed fish and loins). More than 50 percent of these imports were frozen loins and steaks, highly preferred by traders and marketers due to their longer shelf life compared to fresh tuna. Supplies were mainly from Indonesia, Viet Nam, the Philippines, Thailand and China.

Yellowfin tuna was the main species in the whole/fresh tuna category, though US imports from leading sources declined by 1.6 percent in 2017 compared with 2016, specifically from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Maldives and Trinidad and Tobago. US imports of bigeye tuna represented only a small share of the total imports of fresh tuna and were 8 percent lower in 2017 than in 2016, mainly from Brazil and the Western Pacific.

High-value fresh bluefin tuna imports to the United States of America increased by 33 percent in 2017 compared with 2016, supplied by Canada, Japan, Spain and Turkey, with an average import price of USD 21 per kg. US imports of frozen Atlantic bluefin also increased from 5 tonnes in 2016 to 44 tonnes in 2017, most entering the US sashimi trade.

The US market has emerged as the leading importer of air-flown tuna since 2015, a position previously held by Japan.


Overall imports of seafood to Japan improved in 2017, supported by economic recovery and rising disposable income, but that trend was not seen in the sashimi tuna trade. Japanese imports of fresh tuna in 2017 were the lowest of recent years, decreasing by almost 50 percent compared to 2013. Sashimi tuna has become a seasonal choice for Japanese consumers. Expensive tuna is facing strong competition from more affordable salmon imported from Norway and Chile.

Even though Japanese imports of frozen tuna rose by 4.5 percent in 2017 compared to 2016, it was due to higher imports of frozen skipjack and albacore for reprocessing of sushi products (cooked, dried tuna) and canned tuna.

Frozen loin imports to Japan, including the high-priced bluefin tuna from the Mediterranean, increased in recent years to supply the seasonal demand in the retail and catering trade. In 2017, Japan imported 47 400 tonnes of frozen tuna loins, 13 percent more than in 2016, supplied primarily by China, the Republic of Korea, Malta, Spain, Turkey and Croatia. This total comprised 30 300 tonnes of red meat quality loins (bigeye and yellowfin) and 17 200 tonnes of bluefin. Demand for the higher value bluefin increased during the festival months of April, May and December, but remained stable for the cheaper red meat quality (bigeye) loins throughout 2017, at stable prices.

European Union (Member Organization)

Imports of frozen tuna fillets in the EU28 external trade increased in recent years, indicating good sectorial demand for high value marine fish, particularly from high-end restaurant business. Supplied by Viet Nam, the Republic of Korea, Mexico, Ecuador among the top, imports increased by 7 percent at 24 300 tonnes in 2017 compared with 19 200 tonnes in 2015 and 22 700 tonnes in 2016. During the review period, imports of chilled and frozen swordfish fillet (which is a by-catch of tuna fishing) also increased by 33 percent at 4 500 tonnes mostly supplied were Viet Nam, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
Demand for marine fish fillet in the EU28 market has grown despite the high prices. However, demand for whole/dressed air-flown tuna dropped by 2 percent in 2017 to 2 900 tonnes, shipped mainly from the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Suriname and Oman.

Canned tuna trade

The international trade of canned and processed tuna in 2017 has been characterised by high raw material prices, increased demand for cooked tuna loins, decreased exports of conventional canned tuna in many traditional and emerging markets, and increased consumer interest for higher value products in developed markets.


The export trend for canned and processed tuna was mixed in 2017. Thailand, the world’s largest producer of processed and canned tuna, exported less to the world market in 2017 compared with 2016, mainly because of declining demand in some important emerging markets in the Middle East (Egypt, Libya and Saudi Arabia) and in Southeast Asia.
The positive export trends in Ecuador and the Philippines could be attributed to higher sales of cooked loins as well as canned tuna to the EU28 markets, supported by the preferential tariffs. More than one third of Ecuadorian exports to the EU28 consisted of cooked loins. These exports increased by 34 percent from 2016 to 2017, while Ecuadorian exports of canned/processed tuna to the EU28 market increased by 25 percent.
Strong demand for value-added tuna in the EU28 market helped Spanish canners to increase exports in 2017, especially to Italy, France, Portugal, the Netherlands and Germany.
China sustained positive export trend by selling more cooked loins for processing to its main markets, the United States of America and the EU28.


The relatively low prices of frozen skipjack during 2014–2016, generated additional demand in many emerging markets in the Middle East. This was not the case in the large US and EU28 markets, where such boost was absent, particularly for conventional light meat tuna in brine (skipjack and yellowfin) even at lower prices. This is a strong indication that demand for this category of canned tuna has levelled off in many western markets. However, demand for higher value canned/pouched albacore has improved in the United States of America and in Western Europe.

North and South America The 2017 US imports growth resulted from more imports of higher value albacore products (+14 percent at 28 100 tonnes), showing increasing consumer preference for superior quality products, whereas imports of light meat tuna (skipjack and yellowfin) declined by 12 percent (99 400 tonnes), compared with 2016. The average import value of light meat tuna in brine was USD 3.27 per kg compared with USD 4.36 per kg of albacore in brine. The major share of canned light meat tuna (68 200 tonnes) consisted of lower value tuna in brine for which Thailand was the key supplier. Demand for canned tuna in the Canadian market remained soft since 2016 and weakened further in 2017 with falling supplies from Southeast Asian sources

European Union (Member Organization)

The EU28 market imported more than 700 000 tonnes of canned tuna products, including 140 000 tonnes of precooked tuna. The top five markets were Italy (+12.7 percent at 129 600 tonnes), Spain (+28.4 percent at 121 600 tonnes), the United Kingdom (-6.7 percent at 106 900 tonnes), France (+7 percent at 98 300 tonnes) and Germany (+20.4 percent at 84 200 tonnes). Imports increased in these markets except in the United Kingdom. Imports also increased in the Netherlands (+16.3 percent at 60 900 tonnes), Belgium (+11.4 percent at 18 500 tonnes), Czechia (+12.8 percent at 6 300 tonnes), Romania (+27 percent T 50 100 tonnes) and Hungary (+5.6 percent t 2 700 tonnes), but declined in Poland (-20 percent at 7 800 tonnes).
Notably, 70 percent (585 300 tonnes) of the EU28 imports of canned/processed tuna were sourced in non-member countries, namely Ecuador (142 300 tonnes; +25.3 percent), Mauritius (55 700 tonnes, +3.2 percent), Seychelles (51 600 tonnes, -6.3 percent), the Philippines (50 100 tonnes, +40 percent) and Papua New Guinea (38 100 tonnes, +32.7 percent). These countries enjoy tariff privileges in the EU28 market.
Within the EU28 countries, trade of high-value processed tuna for direct consumption has been strong, primarily produced by Spain, Italy, France and Portugal. In 2017, imports of cooked loins increased in all four counties (Spain 85 000 tonnes, Italy 37 700 tonnes, Portugal 7 900 tonnes, and France 7 500 tonnes). Spain is the largest producer of high value canned/pouched tuna in Europe and has been able to increase sales within Europe since 2013.


Canned tuna demand was mixed in the Asia/Pacific region. Imports weakened in many emerging markets in Central Asia and the Middle East. The imports increase seen in previous years in many medium-to-large markets in the Middle East has ceased due to the rising prices of raw material and to a declining local demand, associated with the geopolitical unrest in the region. In addition, some of the markets are reportedly holding unsold stocks, and this has stopped import growth in 2017. There were significant drops in Thai exports to Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait, among others.

Unsold stocks and high prices also affected most of the markets in Southeast Asia. Even though imports declined in most Southeast Asian markets, the strong national currencies in Japan and Australia helped to sustain the positive import trends in 2017. Imports of canned/processed tuna into Japan increased by 4.3 percent in 2017 at 63 000 tonnes, including 5 600 tonnes of katsuobushi (boiled/dried tuna loins). Japan produces high-value canned tuna, mostly consumed in the domestic market. Imports also improved in Australia at 45 600 tonnes (+1.7 percent), after the weakening in 2016.


Despite the worldwide dwindling demand for canned tuna in 2017, the average prices of raw tuna material remained high through the first quarter of 2018. The average CFR Bangkok price of frozen skipjack went up to USD 1 841 per tonne in 2017, compared with USD 1 430 per tonne in 2016, due to lower catch in the main fishing regions. Skipjack prices started to drop in December 2017 (USD 1 700 per tonne) and were down to USD 1 500 per tonne in late March 2018.


Tuna catches have dropped worldwide and demand for processed/canned tuna finally improved by the end of first quarter in 2018, leading to increases in frozen skipjack and yellowfin tuna prices. As of April 2018, fishing in the Western/Central Pacific and in the Indian Ocean remained moderate. However, catch in the Eastern Pacific was reported to be poor, the lowest level since 2015.

Frozen tuna inventories in Thailand are presently still high. Canneries were closed for a week in early April in celebration of the water festival “Songkran”.

European prices for both skipjack and yellowfin tuna recovered, while the market price for cooked, double cleaned yellowfin loins remained stable.

The impact of the rising raw material prices may weaken canned tuna demand again in 2018.
In Japan, demand for all types of sashimi tuna is expected to be abrupt during the Spring Festival months of April and May. In the West, an increase in demand for canned and non-canned tuna is likely to take place during the upcoming summer months. Therefore, import demand for frozen tuna fillets may increase soon.

The present situation of low catches, low demand and fluctuating prices, is causing much concern among the global tuna industry. On 27–29 May 2018, industry leaders are scheduled to meet in Bangkok at the biennial INFOFISH Tuna Trade Conference, where they will discuss the key issues including sustainability, supply and markets. The report analyses the market situation over the year 2017 and the first quarter of 2018.

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