Improving seafood freshness at the port markets of Phu Quoc, Vietnam with Japanese seafood technology pilot

For three weeks in July and August, Meros senior analyst Hiroki Seki dove into the Vietnamese seafood industry, moving from Phu Quoc Island, the largest island in Vietnam and a part of Kien Giang province, to Rach Gia, the capital city of Kien Giang province, to Ho Chi Minh City, interviewing seafood experts, visiting fish markets and discussing the growing market for premium fresh fish. This research is all part of an on-going pilot project funded by JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) to increase the incomes of fishermen and reduce food-loss by improving the freshness of the fish sold in Phu Quoc. The project is led by three fishery companies from Japan’s Yamaguchi Prefecture, the westernmost tip of Japan’s main island. The three companies, Yutaka, Fujimitsu and Nishi-F, aim to introduce Japanese technologies for maintaining fresh fish quality into Phu Quoc’s main seafood market, and Meros is supporting by investigating the regional market demand for fresh seafood among seafood end users in Phu Quoc, Rach Gia and Ho Chi Minh.

Seafood today is mostly sold at markets on the streets in Phu Quoc and is rarely sold at supermarkets. Seafood is sold by fishmongers who sell many kinds of locally sourced seafood such as horse mackerel, squid and octopus. These markets are visited by not only by general consumers but also buyers from the local restaurants. Therefore, the markets can get extremely crowded during busy times of day.

Fishmongers selling fish on the streets of Phu Quoc.

Two challenges dominated the struggle to maintain seafood freshness along the supply chain in Phu Quoc

1. After the seafood is caught, proper refrigeration measures are not taken on the boat, causing an immediate decrease in quality

2. After seafood is landed, the freshness deteriorates during the distribution process before reaching the end-users due to inadequate refrigeration.

As a result of these cold chain weaknesses, much of the seafood arriving at the Phu Quoc market does not end up sold for human consumption, but instead ends up as feed for farmed fish or discarded. To address these challenge, we are conducting a pilot project between January 2022 to August 2024 to introduce several Japanese technologies that may be able to increase incomes of the fishermen as well as decrease food-loss and maintain good prices for high quality fresh seafood.

Specifically, we are:

1. Manufacturing and installing a machine to produce slurry ice at the port in Phu Quoc

Slurry ice is a sherbet-like ice that can penetrate the fish, cooling its body temperature quickly. The machine was designed by Japanese companies Remice and Yutaka and manufactured in Japan. It will soon be shipped and installed at Phu Quoc port.

2. Converting existing ships’ wooden tanks to FRP fish tanks

FRP (fiber-reinforced plastic) fish tanks have a higher tolerance to heat than wooden fish tanks.

3. Bringing cold storage boxes from Japan

These boxes are made of styrofoam with a special coating and have enhanced heat-resistance. By putting the rem ice inside these boxes, fish can be transported from the harbor to end-users without a decrease in freshness.

Here is an example of bonito kept fresh using slurry ice in Amami Oshima, an island in Japan.

Over the next months, our partners will monitor the boats, like those pictures below, which installed FRP fish tanks filled with slurry ice to see whether this has improved the freshness of fish compared with fish caught by conventional methods. We also use the cold storage boxes to see whether the fish can maintain freshness all the way to the end users, such as restaurants and supermarkets.

But to make these cold chain investments sustainable long-term, it is critical to know- is there really demand from Vietnamese end users for fresher fish?

This was Meros mission. We investigated the interest in fresh fish among Vietnamese end users through interviews and visits with over 30 restaurants, hotels, and fish processing companies in Phu Quoc, Rach Gia, and Ho Chi Minh City.

And indeed, we found out that there’s very high demand for fresher fish, driven both by the growing hotel and restaurant industry, as well as the fish processing industry.

Development on Phu Quoc island is advancing rapidly, with many luxury hotels and an increasing number of tourists coming to enjoy its beaches and seafood delicacies. Hotels and restaurants are seeking fresher fish to meet the demand of tourists who are willing and interested in paying for premium seafood.

In Rach Gia, there are many fish processing companies and they too are looking for fresher fish. In particular they process squid in a large volumes into ready-to-eat forms, mainly for export. They are looking for fresher squid in order to produce higher quality products that they can sell at higher prices.

In Ho Chi Minh City, with rising incomes and a boom in Japanese cuisine, the demand for raw fish dishes like sashimi and sushi continues to grow. While Vietnamese consumers can already eat raw fish dishes at many restaurants in Ho Chih Minh City, this fish is often imported from overseas, such as salmon from Norway.

We visited a Japanese restaurant in Rach Gia that serves a variety of sushi and sashimi, mostly sourced from overseas. Japanese cuisine such as sashimi and sushi is increasingly popular in Vietnam, and demand for raw seafood ingredients sourced from Vietnam is growing

The pilot fishing expeditions in Phu Quoc using the new technologies are expected to be completed by the end of this year. If we can demonstrate capacity to maintain greater freshness in domestically caught seafood compared to conventionally caught seafood, along with strong market demand for fresh seafood at restaurants, hotels and processors, similar initiatives may begin in other regions of Vietnam. If all goes well, in the near future, it might be possible to enjoy delicious sashimi and sushi from domestic Vietnamese fish in many restaurants and hotels across the country.

We were so appreciative to the dozens of Vietnamese seafood end-users who shared their views and experience, including a fish freezer manufacturer in Ho Chi Minh City (left) and the chef of a Japanese restaurant in Phu Quoc (right).

If you are interested in learning more out this project or Meros’ wide range of other experience in Vietnam and in global seafood and fisheries, please don’t hesitate to reach out!

Seafood sustainability, food safety and packaging innovation are highlights at the EU Seafood Expo

Meros Director Tina Peneva attended the annual Seafood Expo Global in Brussels (May 7-9, 2019) to learn about the latest trends in the seafood industry, reconnect with long-time Meros friends and discuss collaborations with new partners and industries.

The show hosted over 2000 companies in the seafood sector from 88 countries, billing itself as the world’s largest expo for the seafood trade. Below are some of our impressions of the seafood trade trends we observed.

Fresh seafood displays were still a key attraction for visitors, although there seem to be fewer and fewer seafood displays each year and more focus put on business meetings. The trademark of Turkey’s Group Sagun – a leader in bluefin tuna production in the Mediterranean Sea, all of it processed for the Japanese market – is their exhibit of a whole tuna which has probably turned into the most Instagrammed item of the show.

Japan remains the number two seafood importer in the world behind the US and while seafood consumption has been decreasing in Japan, the country still consumes as much as 33 kg of seafood per capita per year (compared to the US, which is closer to 7 kg.) But what is Japan offering as an exporter? In Brussels, the Japan pavilion hosted booths that exhibited products and skills targeting the booming sushi market worldwide. Seaweed products, especially nori, seemed to inspire special interest among visitors. Another product we were interested to see was farmed kampachi (yellowtail). Meros’ teammembers worked with closely with kampachi fishery cooperatives in the early days of the industry’s export development  and seeing the industry increasingly established on the global stage is a real bright spot for Japan.

The booths from emerging seafood producing countries such as Myanmar were also attracting global buyers. There is solid export potential for aquaculture products from Myanmar such as rohu, shrimp, soft shell crab and pangasius. The Dutch Centre for the Promotion of Imports from Developing Countries (CBI) has been working with selected Myanmarese exporters to build their business skills for exporting to the European market. The program is part of a wider strategy focused on developing sustainable businesses in Myanmar.

Raw seafood goes fancy! The Spanish company Gimar displayed novel single-serving packs of raw salmon and tuna cuts for the food service industry. The “Skin Pack & Airbag” packaging technology allows fish to stay fresh in a double protected environment: the SkinPack is a film that is forms a vacuum around the fish and the “Air bag” seals the pack and protects the product during transportation.  As sushi and raw seafood consumption grows in popularity globally, food safety measures and improved packaging technologies for raw seafood are increasingly a focus of company innovation.


The show gives out Seafood Excellence Global Awards for the best retail and HoReCa seafood products. The items we found most interesting featured different types of seaweed, mixed in unusual combinations and attractive packaging. Some of the finalists:

  • Guacamole with fresh spirulina algae (Retail)
  • Fish terrine with a seaweed center that resembles avocado (HoReCa)
  • Seafood salad in a wooden box (Retail)

Invasive Seafood Species is Not Bad News for Bulgaria

Seafood industry highlights from a recent article by Meros’ Tina Peneva in the Bulgarian gastronomy magazine Bacchus.

Fish consumption is booming in Bulgaria

Deep-fried sprats are a favorite accompaniment to beer in the summer months.

For years, eating fish was typically a seasonal activity for Bulgarian consumers and was mainly limited to two varieties of fish. In the summer, Bulgarians would often have a plate piled high with tiny, deep-fried sprats to go with their cold beer and in the winter, many would enjoy baked, stuffed carp while celebrating the Day of St. Nicola, the Orthodox Christian patron saint of the sea and fishermen.

Until recently, the only other fish commonly found beyond the ubiquitous carp and sprats were mackerel and “white fish”, which refers to any type of white fleshed fish. Frozen fish was the norm, with some fresh seasonal exceptions along the Black Sea coast in the East or the Danube river shore in the North.

While many Bulgarian consumers continue to follow these fish consumption traditions, in the past decade, the Bulgarian fish market has seen major changes and has become increasingly complex, with new seafood industries developing around aquaculture – and around the notorious Black Sea Rapa whelk.

Source: Directorate General, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, European Commission

Bulgarian fish consumption has been on the rise and, according to official statistics totals, it is up to at least 6.7 kg per capita per year. According to unofficial data, real consumption is actually double this volume if unregistered catch and imports are included.  This increase is due to improvements in cold chain infrastructure, modernised retail outlets, as well as changing eating habits focused on health and variety. Chilled fresh fish is becoming more accessible, especially in larger cities.

Bulgaria is a small fish in the global fish market

Only 34 seafood species are harvested commercially in the Black Sea, including various types of both fish and crustaceans. In 2016, the catch totaled 8,500 MT, according to the official statistics and as much as 10,000 MT when adding the unregulated catch.

Source: Bulgarian Fish Association

In addition to wild catch fisheries, there are now over 670 aquaculture farms in Bulgaria producing mussels and clams, as well as other cold and warm water fish varieties like sturgeon, trout, carp, silver carp and Wels catfish. The total aquaculture production in 2015 was 13,600 MT with shellfish accounting for 25% of the volume. Mussel farms are a new and rapidly developing segment in Bulgarian aquaculture with over 30 farms established along the Black Sea coast.

 2016 Seafood Trade

Black Sea fish volumes are not enough to satisfy the growing consumer demand and already over 75% of the seafood products consumed in Bulgaria are imported. The total volume of fish and seafood products imported into Bulgaria is 34,000 MT per year and over one third of this volume is frozen mackerel imported from the Netherlands, Iceland and Norway, as well as frozen Danish salmon.

Source: International Trade Center

In addition to being a net importer, Bulgaria is a key exporter of various seafood products. In 2016, the total value of seafood exports was estimated at USD 31 million. Almost one third of the exports were shipped to neighboring Romania, including not only processed seafood but live, chilled and frozen fish, shellfish and crustaceans. Spain is Bulgaria’s second largest export partner and shipments were mainly shellfish.

The notorious Veined Rapa Whelk is one of the most lucrative segments in the Bulgarian seafood industry

The veined Rapa whelk, or Rapana venosa is not native to the Black Sea and originated in the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan. Marine historians tell the story of how the whelk was transported along with ballast water to the Black Sea by Russian military ships during WWII and ever since, has become a common inhabitant of the Black Sea.

This whelk is considered one of the top 100 worst predatory invasive species in Europe,  according to the European Invasive Alien Species Gateway (DAISIE).

The Rapa whelk propagates very quickly and has no natural enemies in the Black Sea. In the past 10 years, due to global warming and the constant rise of the Black Sea water temperature, the veined Rapa whelk population has increased tremendously. It has started threatening the biological diversity of the Black Sea as the whelk eat the shellfish living in the sea, which are the natural filters for the sea water.

In order to control overpopulation by this invader, a new industry has developed in Bulgaria focusing on the harvesting and processing of Rapa whelks. The Rapa whelk is not only now the top species harvested in the Black Sea, but it is also one of the most lucrative products for the Bulgarian seafood processing industry. The annual catch is officially 3,500 MT but the actual, unofficial volume is estimated to be even more. Eight factories are processing the catch and products are exported to the key whelk consumers globally: South Korea (exports are valued 4.3 million USD) and Japan (2.4 million US) and smaller volumes to the US and China.