That severely white Christmas that has blanketed the East Coast might possibly pay off in a holiday present for islanders—stable ahi prices for New Year’s sashimi.
"It’s bad weather over there, so we can’t ship fish to the East Coast," said Guy Tamashiro, manager of Tamashiro Market in Kalihi. "The price is always determined on availability, and if there’s less demand there, that helps lower prices here."
However, prices are already high and no one yet knows how much ahi will actually be available. Fishing bans, enforced to allow fish to repropagate, are having an effect on the catch.
"So far, some boats aren’t doing as well as usual, not bringing in as much tuna as we’d like," said Tamashiro. "There’s a ban on one side of the islands … and it’s having an effect."
Quotas on longline fishing have reduced bigeye tuna fishing by 10 percent since 2004. Hawaii’s longline fishing vessels virtually stopped bigeye fishing in the central and western Pacific as of Nov. 22 after reaching their quota. Boats are now out in nontraditional waters farther out in the eastern Pacific, and it is uncertain how much tuna is there.
Honolulu seafood markets will have a firmer idea of the prices they’ll charge customers for New Year’s Day sashimi after the ahi fleet returns to Honolulu Harbor today, several retailers said.
But as of yesterday, retail prices were running around $35 to $38 a pound for the medium-grade ahi that most retail customers buy—and a whopping $40 a pound for premium grade.
"At $35 a pound (for medium grade), that’s higher than most times," said Alan Young, the owner of Young’s Fish Market on Kalani Street in Kapalama. "It’s a bit on the higher side."
Justin Tanioka, the general manager of Taniokas Seafood and Catering in Waipahu, also had medium-grade ahi at $35 to $38 a pound yesterday—$2 or $3 higher than last year.
"So far, we’ve had a few customers who cut their orders down," Tanioka said. "Others say, ‘OK—It’s New Year and it’s a tradition to have sashimi in Hawaii.’ Our customers know we treat them fair. When it’s cheap, we make it cheap. When it’s expensive, there’s nothing we can do."
Young believes that most customers will continue to buy sashimi this year, but perhaps at smaller quantities.
"Traditionalists always want it," Young said.
George Tanabe, a University of Hawaii professor emeritus of Japanese religion, will have 10 additional guests on New Year’s Day and has been cautiously watching ahi prices.
"Oh, boy, it’s so expensive," Tanabe said. "But we can’t do without it."
As in Japan, there is no direct cultural connection between New Year’s Day and sashimi in Hawaii’s Japanese-American culture, Tanabe said.
"Sashimi is popular all year round and at New Year’s it remains a staple that people like to have, like sushi," he said. "But it’s a cuisine that’s culturally important to have. So it’s important to at least have a ceremonial amount."
With the economy still struggling and a Hawaii seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 6.4 percent for November, Tanabe knows that many people will have to make a financial commitment to buy sashimi this New Year.
"That’s not to say that they don’t think it’s culturally important," Tanabe said. "Most people are still going to buy it. But they may buy less of it. I don’t think people will refrain."
For his own New Year celebration, Tanabe said, "I may go for a lesser grade, but the same amount as usual."
Tamashiro cautioned that there’s still four days before New Year’s, and much still depends on tuna catches and auctions between now and then. This early, Tamashiro was not willing to speculate on prices, except that "the very best ahi is always going to be more expensive."