Turkish tuna farmers have tripled exports to Japan over the past decade and expanded their operations into North Africa. Industry sources suggest that demand from China and South Korea is also surging.

The harvesting of fattened bluefin tuna was well underway off the Aegean Sea coast of the western province of Izmir one day in January. Divers with electric harpoons dispatched tuna in farming pens 50 meters across, and cranes hoisted tuna weighing 300 to 600 kilograms one after another.

Bluefin tuna given natural feed — sardines, mackerel and other fish that are plentiful in nearby waters — are rich with fat and so match Japanese consumers’ taste, said Ahmet Tuncay Sagun, the president of Group Sagun, Turkey’s biggest tuna farming company.

In Japan, tuna farming starts with eggs or juvenile fish. In Turkey and other Mediterranean countries, wild tuna weighing 150 to 400 kg are captured and farmed in pens for eight months to two years. This practice produces tuna that are close to natural quality, Tuncay Sagun said.

Group Sagun was Turkey’s first tuna farming company, beginning operations in 1999, and now ships 3,600 metric tonnes of the fish annually, nearly 90% of which goes to Japan. Tuna hoisted out of Sagun’s pens are loaded onto traders’ factory ships nearby and undergo export procedures in the presence of customs officials. They are then processed aboard the ships and immediately frozen at minus 70 degrees C to maintain quality.

Tuna exports from Turkey to Japan, which involve strictly bluefin tuna, totaled roughly 5,000 tonnes in 2022 and were valued at 13.8 billion yen ($92 million), according to Japanese government data. Although tuna exports to Japan were almost nil when farming started in Turkey, they now account for nearly 20% of Japan’s total tuna imports, the most after Malta, which exported 6,900 tonnes in 2022.

The consumption of tuna is increasing in China as well. Along with Japanese vessels, a Chinese ship was also present recently at Group Sagun’s loading site. While leading Turkish fishery company Kilic Seafood’s entire 2023 tuna exports of around 2,000 tonnes were shipped to Japan, it has also received inquiries from China, said its export director Hilay Agaoglu.

Nevertheless, Turkey’s tuna shipments cannot rise forever, because the fish is a finite resource. Countries fishing for tuna in the Atlantic and Mediterranean are subjected to quotas set by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) under an international treaty.

Turkey is now allowed a catch totaling 2,600 tonnes, which does not include amounts raised through farming. The quota is much smaller than the 21,000 tonnes allowed for the European Union, which Turkish rivals like Spain and Malta are part of. When the ICCAT toughened regulations in 2010, Turkey’s quota was sharply decreased to 419 tonnes.

As a relatively new ICCAT member, Turkey does not have a strong say and so is given a small quota despite its long coastline, said Fatih Basaran, president of another major tuna farming company, Basaran Balikcilik, which annually ships most of its 1,000 tonnes of exports to Japan.

Turkish tuna farmers are approaching neighboring countries that have been given fishing quotas but have yet to develop their own farming operations. Group Sagun established its first overseas tuna farming facility in Tunisia in 2023, which has a capacity of 600 tonnes, together with a local company. Sagun is also purchasing juvenile tuna from countries such as Algeria and Egypt. The company will expand operations in North Africa on top of its efforts to win a larger quota for Turkey, Tuncay Sagun said.

Both Tuncay Sagun and Fatih Basaran told Nikkei Asia that the 2023 season was tough, as Japan had excessive stocks of bluefin tuna from the previous year, causing their sale prices to be slashed to half, and the weakened yen also diminished the purchasing power of their Japanese clients. They also said their costs for things like fuel and personnel had jumped significantly in Turkey, which recorded 65% inflation last year. Turkish tuna exporters are hoping for better prices this year.