Frozen skipjack prices plummet to record lows but recovery in sight


Fresh and frozen tuna trade weakened during the first four months of 2020. In contrast, household demand for affordable and shelf-stable canned tuna increased in the traditional markets. However, most of the canneries are running at low capacity due to the implementation of social distancing measures to combat COVID-19. Prices of frozen fish were on the rise until April, but have started to soften since.


In 2019, global supplies of frozen skipjack remained stable at record low prices. In the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO), tuna catches were moderate, except during the FAD fishing closure (July-September). Overall catches in the Eastern Pacific Ocean (EPO) remained low. In Ecuador, tuna canners faced raw material shortage until April 2019 with some improvements occurring from May to July 2019. Again, fishing efforts were low during the IATTC "veda" fishing closures (29 July to 8 October 2019 and 9 November 2019 to 19 January 2020). Catches in the Indian Ocean also fluctuated from low to moderate between July to December 2019.

In the Atlantic Ocean, tuna catches were reasonably good from April to July and October to November 2019, but weakened during the low catch periods of August and December.

Raw Material Imports

Due to larger carry-over stocks from 2018, total frozen tuna imports in Thailand declined by 1.5 percent to 629 000 tonnes in 2019. Nearly 36 000 tonnes of Thai imports consisted of semi-processed cooked loins. Spain imported 255 500 tonnes of tuna raw material for the canneries, consisting of 155 800 tonnes of whole tuna and 100 000 tonnes of cooked loins. Compared to 2018, imports of frozen tuna were higher in Ecuador (168 175 tonnes), due to lower regional catches in the Eastern Pacific. Frozen skipjack imports increased significantly by 371 percent to 145 600 tonnes in 2019. Frozen tuna imports also increased in the Philippines (+27.7 percent to 179 000 tonnes). In contrast, Chinese annual imports of raw frozen tuna in 2019 declined by 16.5 percent to 89 000 tonnes.

Fresh and frozen tuna market (non-canned)

This market segment worldwide – small and large – reported stable growth in 2019. Unfortunately this growth has started to halt since January 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By April 2020, sales at restaurants and hospitality trade plummeted by 80 to 90 percent worldwide as in-dinning is barred in many countries as part of the lockdown.


In 2019, Japan imported an estimated 150 000 tonnes of high-value tuna (fresh and frozen), an increase of 10 percent compared with 2018. Imports of bluefin (fresh and frozen/ including fillets) increased by 13 percent to 39 660 tonnes. Imports increased particularly during the fourth quarter of 2019 in anticipation of good business associated with the Spring Festival celebrations, the coronation of the New Emperor in April/May and also the Tokyo Summer Olympics in July 2020. United States of America Total imports of fresh and frozen tuna into the United States of America reached 72 000 tonnes in 2019, an increase of 14.2 percent compared to 2018. Overall the share of this product in total tuna imports in the United States of America increased from 23 percent in 2018 to 25 percent in 2019.

Other Markets

Imports of non-canned tuna, particularly frozen tuna loins, were on rise in the European Union. The market imported 36 625 tonnes of frozen tuna loins in 2019. The top five markets were Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland.

In the Russian Federation, frozen tuna loin imports increased by 70 percent to 5 700 tonnes during 2019. Republic of Korea, the second largest market in Asia after Japan, imported 5 800 tonnes (+3 percent) of frozen tuna fillet in 2019. In China, imports of high value non-canned tuna increased to 1 800 tonnes (+15.6 percent), of which 654 tonnes were the high value bluefin species.


Thailand, the world major canned tuna exporter, shipped 34 percent of its canned tuna exports to the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, and increased supplies to North America (24.5 percent) in 2019. Ecuador shipped 67 percent of its exports to Europe. Year-on-year exports from Indonesia increased to the European Union, Middle East, Japan and Australia, while exports declined from the Philippines as more products entered the domestic trade. Taking advantage of low skipjack prices, China, Ecuador, Indonesia, and Viet Nam exported more cooked loins to European reprocessors in 2019.


North and South America

In the United States of America, total imports of processed tuna (including cooked loins) in 2019 reached 213 000 tonnes (+2.4 percent). Imports of products for direct consumption increased by 7.3 percent to 132 480 tonnes, of which 35 percent (45 100 tonnes) were valued added products. In Canada, canned tuna imports in 2019 increased by 3.5 percent to 34 000 tonnes. There were mixed trends in South America. Imports of canned tuna declined in Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Panama, Uruguay, but increased in Peru, Chile, and Costa Rica.

European Union 

In general, demand for canned tuna was dormant in the European Union during 2019. However, imports increased because of low prices of skipjack. The Community market imported 748 130 tonnes of processed tuna consisting of 590 000 tonnes (+1.3 percent) of canned/pouched tuna meant for direct consumption and 158 130 tonnes (+6.7 percent) of cooked loins for reprocessing. Spain, Italy, France and Portugal had a 96 percent share in cooked loin imports.

The top markets of canned tuna were Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Others in Europe

Outside the European Union, the Russian Federation was the leading importer in 2019, with some 5 700 tonnes of canned tuna imports (+70 percent).

Asia/Pacific and Others

In 2019, imports of canned tuna in Saudi Arabia and Egypt were 48 500 tonnes each, with a 12 percent increase in Saudi Arabia and 4 percent decline in Egypt. There were increased imports in the other medium and small markets in the MENA region supported by lower prices of canned skipjack, mostly supplied by Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Oman. Stable domestic production of canned tuna in Japan continued in 2019 while imports weakened marginally (-0.1 percent) compared with 2018 to 65 000 tonnes. Affected by wild fires since July 2019 and the weaker economy many Australian consumers have moved away from high value canned tuna (mostly produced in Thailand) to the conventional packs imported from Indonesia and Viet Nam. Demand for canned tuna remains low in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, and China as consumers still prefer fresh fish.


The average price of frozen skipjack in 2019 was 39 percent lower year-on-year at USD 930 per tonne. During the periods of July to August and October to December 2019, prices even fell below the annual average. By mid-April 2020, frozen skipjack prices for delivery to Thailand increased by 35 percent to USD 1 550 per tonne from the start of the year, but remained on par with the April 2019 price. Prices of yellowfin have also increased. In May, prices weakened again, as demand for canned tuna levelled off.


Global demand for canned, pouched and processed tuna remained strong worldwide during the first quarter of 2020 as consumers, particularly in the western and Middle Eastern markets, continued to buy and stock shelf-stable products in view of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. During the first quarter of 2020, household demand for canned tuna increased throughout Europe, particularly in the lockdown countries of Italy, Spain, France, Germany. In Italy, canned tuna sales increased by 35-45 percent during February to March 2020. Production plants owned by Italian tuna giant Bolton group remain fully operational in procurement and shipment of goods.

Considering the gloomy economic outlook worldwide, limited employment opportunities and falling disposable income, demand for more affordable conventional canned tuna is likely to be good in the traditional western markets and also in the emerging markets of the Middle East and North Africa. This did not result in immediate stronger imports, as the main consuming markets were holding sufficient stocks to cater for the demand.

In terms of raw material supplies, tuna packers in Southeast Asia have reportedly been less affected by lower catches as many have been holding sufficient raw material bought in 2019. However, supplies in the coming months may slowdown if catch activities reduce due to the measures implemented to combat COVID-19. In the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, the 3-month FAD fishing closure will take place from July to September 2020. With this closure and likely COVID-19 impacts, frozen tuna prices are forecasted to firm up in the coming months.

Travel restrictions worldwide are causing disruptions in fresh tuna exports, with major airlines cancelling most international flights to the major tuna markets (namely Japan, the United States of America and Europe). In this market, demand will certainly be affected by the global financial slowdown and looming recession. In Japan, the world’s largest sashimi market, demand has weakened considerably and is expected to stay bleak following the cancellation of Spring Festival celebrations and the rescheduling of the Tokyo Olympics from 2020 to 2021. In the United States of America, demand for non-canned tuna will also be tampered in the spring and summer months, as the national unemployment curve continues to show upward movement.

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