05/27/2015 10:02 EDT | Updated 05/27/2016 05:59 EDT

Sushi prices under pressure from California drought, international demand

Vancouverites who are in the habit of picking up a cheap Californian roll or packet of sushi and nigiri for lunch may have to start digging a little deeper next time they head to the cashier.

That's because a combination of the drought in California, a strong U.S. dollar and rising global demand for fresh fish are all making it more expensive to make sushi.

Guy Dean, vice-president of Albion Fisheries, the largest seafood distributor in Western Canada, says all seafood has risen in price. 

"We've seen a 10 to 25 per cent increase due to the Japanese and U.S. exchange rate," said Dean.

Kevin Banno, director of operations at Hapa Izakaya, says with the price of spot prawn, halibut and salmon all rising as well, shopping local does not offer any savings either.

"Most notably sockeye salmon and halibut prices have gone through the roof and it's because so much of the product is being exported now. We are trying to find options where we don't have to increase our price."

Price of rice also rising

It is not just the price of fish that is rising. Almost everything in the popular California roll is more expensive.

"We used to also buy our Japanese-grade sushi rice from California," said Banno.

"This was the first year it was actually cheaper for us to buy it from Asia, which we would have never done in years past because California was always cheaper."

Randy Lum, who owns the Eatery in Kitsilano, says the prices of avocado and cucumbers from California have also gone up, along with the price of anything imported from Japan.

"Unagi and nori or different types of tuna from out there has gone up 10 to 20 per cent, depending on fish and type of seaweed," said Lum.

Lum says they haven't raised their prices at the Eatery in more than three years and bumping up prices will always be the last resort.

"The market is just so competitive and it has already taken a huge bite from our bottom line, but we are okay with that."

Keith Kamizato, owner of Sushi K Kamizato in Port Coquitlam agrees.

"Everybody is used to California rolls [being] under $5. Consumers don't know how much [money] goes into making a roll, but if I increase the price, then people will look for a cheaper deal."

Creative alternatives keep prices down

Because the competition is so fierce amongst Metro Vancouver's roughly 400 sushi restaurants, many are looking for creative ways to keep prices down.

"You have to come up with something unique and hope more customers come" said Kamizato. 

Hapa Izakaya re-engineered its menu recently, replacing their Dungeness crab roll with lobster.

"It's about finding other products that are just as good. The last thing we want to do is increase our prices" explained Banno. 

"We never thought we would be able to serve our guests lobster, but it was actually cheaper."

If the Canadian dollar remains at the current level, it will make for a tough sushi industry, he says.

"It's pretty scary, I think a lot of restaurants regardless of their size are going to have some serious problems over the next couple of years," said Banno.