The Hokkaido scallop is a wonderful thing. Quick to grow in the plankton-rich and occasionally icy waters of northern Japan, these bivalve molluscs have a thicker abductor muscle than their Atlantic cousins. Its succulent flesh is as suited to sashimi as it is to being baked in its shell in hot butter.
It is also one of the principal shipments from New Chitose Airport, or Sapporo as passengers know it better. Sapporo International Air Cargo Terminal (SIACT), the facility that handles cargo for Cathay Pacific and also the name of the limited company that runs it, is benefiting from this natural bounty.
When SIACT first opened in 1986, it handled around 4,000 tonnes of cargo a year. This year, it will handle closer to 17,000. ‘And we broke our monthly tonnage record in December,’ says General Manager Koji Sugawara.
Maybe that’s to be expected – the past year has seen a boom for air cargo, but there are local and natural factors at play too. In 2015, a typhoon wreaked havoc on Japan’s northernmost island, and its scallop production – along with potatoes, which make another important food export, potato chips – suffered.
This year, the scallops are back, and in early March the SIACT facility is filled with polystyrene ‘eskis’ filled with the shellfish – and fair few boxes of potato chips – mainly bound for Hong Kong.
These scallops are hardened travellers. Cutting open one of the 2,000 or so boxes SIACT handles every week, one of the forwarders pulls out some of the scallops and explains that they will live for up to five days in transit. Not that temperature control is much an issue on this particular day with flurries of snow blowing in from the open airside door of the warehouse.
March is the peak season for skiing tourists and scallops – and the forwarder claims to have had just one or two days off since January, such is the demand. Even so he says: ‘We’d like more flights.’ Cathay Pacific flies here during snow season once daily, with a Boeing 777-300, which will change to an Airbus A350 in May. By then, the snow and ice sculptures will have melted, tourist demand will drop and frequency drops to five-times weekly for the summer season, but with a brief resumption in July to daily flights for the summer peak.
But this is also when the sea ice recedes to the north of the island; Wakkanai City at Hokkaido’s northern tip is more northerly than Vladivostok, so the summer season opens up the opportunity for another glut of sustainably fished scallops.
Despite their resilience (which would enable longer-haul transit) and year-round volumes, the market for scallops remains regional. In terms of developing new markets, the forwarder is looking no further China in addition to the staple of Hong Kong. ‘We think the middle class there is the ideal market for our scallops,’ he says.
It’s all good news for SIACT, which is expanding as exports and imports increase. As well as Cathay Pacific, it handles shipments for 17 other airlines and now employs 50 full time staff. While scallops dominate exports, General Manager Koji Sugawara says that Hokkaido’s produce is revered by consumers in Hong Kong (the biggest export market) and Taiwan. ‘“We also export crabs, snacks and our biscuits are very popular as well,’ he says. There is also a degree of transit goods. The US – principally via Hawaii – is the second biggest export market.
Work is underway to develop a new import centre at the facility, as there is an upward trend here too. The principal imports are machinery – electronic/communications and agricultural – and some perishables. These are mainly fruit and vegetables, and some seafood, mainly salmon and uni (sea urchins).
The SIACT facility already offers cold storage and fumigation facilities. Cargo Development Strategy Assistant Makiko Yokohama adds: ‘The new warehouse is scheduled to open in July.’ By then, the weather and the busy export market for scallops, will both be set fair.