Undaria is a temperate brown macroalgae that is commonly known as wakame. With a long tradition in Japanese and South Korean cuisine, it has since gained popularity across East Asian cuisine and is furthermore an important feedstock for abalone farming. In China, Japan and South Korea, it is only farmed during the winter months.
Wakame (Japanese), miyeok (Korean), sea mustard (English)
Brown seaweeds (Phaeophycae)
Undaria is endemic to East Asian waters, yet as a result of accidental transplantation along with shells, it is now found in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific coasts of North and South America. For the entire life cycle, a temperature of 10 to 20 °C is most suitable. It typically occurs in the open sea, usually in the lower intertidal zone up to 18 m depth. It prefers salinity levels of 27-33 ppt and optimal growth temperatures between 5-15°C.
Human food: Undaria is most commonly consumed as wakame salad, instant miso soup, Undaria soup, instant noodles, seasoned furikake, and similar Asian staple dishes.
Fun fact: South Koreans traditionally have a special relation with Undaria soup (miyeok soup). It is a typical birthday dish and mothers will eat it after giving birth.
Aquaculture feed: fresh Undaria is mainly fed to abalone.
The Undaria industry in China was formed in the 1980s, following guidance on farming and processing techniques from Japan. Almost all of the processed salted Undaria and dried cut Undaria (leaves) were previously exported to Japan.Today, domestic demand for Undaria is increasing significantly (mainly from the boom in e-commerce).
The Chinese “Fishery Statistical Yearbook” stated a production volume of 225,604 tonnes dry weight in 2020 and a conversion factor of 10% was applied to get to the FAO wet weight volume of 2.2 million tonnes wet weight.
Industry estimates: 500,000 – 750,000 tonnes wet weight in 2022.
Currently supply from China (mainly Dalian region) is struggling to keep up with the strong increase in demand. Prices for Undaria are at an all-time high, however farmers cannot easily expand production areas and environmental conditions are challenging the productivity of existing farm sites.
Industrial cultivation began in the 1960s. The production quickly increased to 180,000 tonnes in 1974. Within only 12 years the production level which was 369 tonnes in 1962, increased 500%.
At present, the annual yield of the cultured product is about 500,000 tonnes wet weight, which is 10 x Japan’s current output.
The official production volumes are based on the annual fishery production survey by the Korea National Statistical Office.
Future growth is primarily constrained by limited space to expand the farms and lack of labour to work on the farms. Since 60% of the Undaria farmed is sold as abalone feed, the production is highly dependant on the development of the abalone industry.
Industrial cultivation began in the 1960s. The production peak was in 1974, with 174,000 tonnes. Since then production has declined to about 50,000 tonnes over the past five years.
All Undaria is sold through the fishery cooperatives and the auction data provides the basis for the Consensus of Fisheries by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of Japan.
Although production has been decreasing, Japanese demand for Undaria has been formed by imports from South Korea and China, unlike Pyropia and Saccharina, which are Import Quota (IQ) items.
Japan imported 70% from China, 10% from South Korea and 20% from domestic supply to meet its demands for Undaria.
With an ageing farmers’ population, domestic production in Japan is most likely to continue decreasing.
The high-level supply chain overview for Undaria
This supply chain illustration only applies to the two main uses for Undaria today: human food and animal feed.
Input suppliers: farmers need equipment such as lines, ties, buoys and anchors, as well as seed material from dedicated seed companies or their own hatcheries. Equipment is easily available through local shops, which provide all materials required to build the cultivation system.
Farmers: in South Korea, farmers typically belong to a “Fishing Village Contract” and have private farms. However, these types of farms, especially in the southern province of Jeonnam, can be large scale with several employees. In Japan, all farmers are cooperative members, while everyone has their own unit they are working on. Almost all farmers run small operations in a family-based household industry.
Learn more about the farmer and the cultivation process in our farm insights chapter.
In South Korea, roughly 60% of the farmed Undaria is directly sold to neighbouring abalone farms as fresh feed. The rest is sold to processors. For the domestic market, processing factories for drying, salt preservation are the main buyers. Processed Undaria is sold in a variety of product forms for human consumption, through retail stores and consumer wholesale markets.
In Japan’s Sanriku region, all blanched, salted, dehydrated and dried Undaria products are sold through auction by JF Zengyoren (National Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations) where retailers and consumer wholesalers participate and distribute it on to restaurants, or directly to consumers for consumption at home.