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Special Feature: Flounder/sole

Flatfish attempts to make a name for itself as a sustainable, wild Alaska seafood

An abundant supply of yellowfin sole from Alaska is feeding the product pipeline. - Photo courtesy of Eastern Fisheries
By Melissa Wood
May 05, 2011

Peter Birk, head chef at an iconic Seattle restaurant specializing in Pacific Northwest seafood, understands that there are certain fish his customers expect to see on the menu. 

“The demand for salmon, sablefish and halibut is so strong,” says Birk, who is the executive chef at Ray’s Boathouse, which has been a Seattle institution for more than 50 years. “I think when you go into Ray’s there’s an expectation that those fish are there. When you go into our summer season, it’s all about the salmon.”

But even though they’re local too, the West Coast’s flatfish species — including Dover, flathead, petrale, rock and yellowfin sole and Alaska plaice — don’t play as much of a starring role. Birk uses flatfish as a pinch hitter, serving it when the big players are between seasons, usually in November, December, February and March. 

“We’ve never had it on the menu, just as a special,” says Birk. “It’s kind of a stop-gap fish.”

But the folks at Alaska Seafood Cooperative in Seattle would like to see sole and other West Coast flatfish species join those exalted ranks. While salmon and halibut may be the superstars of Alaska’s finfish fisheries, the state is also home to the largest flatfish fishery in the world — several hundred thousand tons of harvested product, according to Bill Orr, president of the cooperative and Iquique, a member company in Seattle.

“I think it’s a bit of a hidden fishery, but it’s certainly one of the major fisheries in the United States,” says Orr. 

Since the flatfish fishery received Marine Stewardship Council certification last June, Alaska Seafood Cooperative has held events to promote the fish, bringing in chefs and other members of the seafood industry. 

“At first there’s a resistance to using frozen fish, but I think once [chefs] start to use it and see it’s fresh — we catch and freeze it within hours — they find it to be a product that can be easy to use,” says Orr. “You can keep it frozen until you need it.”

Unlike their East Coast counterparts, which are sold fresh and are a staple on local seafood restaurant menus, West Coast flatfish are mainly harvested as raw material for the value-added industry. Orr says about 10 percent is sold in the round, but they sell most to processors, who send it to China for secondary processing and then export it back: In 2010 the United States imported 2.4 million pounds of frozen flounder fillets and 1.9 million tons of frozen sole fillets from China. 

“The vast majority of it is exported and of the portion that is exported, most of it is sent to China,” says Orr. “Most of it comes back out of China and into Europe and North America as finished product.” (Country-of-origin labeling laws stipulate that products that are processed in China are labeled as “product of China,” regardless of where they’re harvested.) 

An abundant supply is one of the fishery’s greatest assets, and yellowfin sole is the most abundant of Alaska’s flatfish species. There is so much supply that the fleet only landed about half the 2010 quota. Out of a quota of 219,000 metric tons, they brought in 118,642 metric tons, or 54 percent, according to Cathy Dupuis, product manager for Seattle-based American Seafoods Group.

“Yellowfin sole stocks are widely viewed as healthy and highly abundant,” says Dupuis.

So far this year, the Alaska fleet’s efforts are ahead of the same period last year. As of March 31, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported the yellowfin sole catch at 34,889 metric tons, versus 29,985 for the same date last year.

“The market for the fishery was really hit hard by the economic situation in 2008, and as a result we harvested less fish,” says Orr. “It looks like pricing and volumes are rebounding to pre-2008 levels.”

Alex Mulholland, director of procurement for American Pride Seafoods in New Bedford, Mass., says that retail demand has been increasing for both raw fillets and value-added product. Yellowfin sole, he points out, works especially well as a value-added product, in terms of size.
“It lends itself well to be breaded,” says Mulholland. 

Orr credits some of the fishery’s recent success to management changes. While catch shares have been a source of controversy for flatfish fishermen on the East Coast struggling with low quotas, Orr says they have worked in Alaska’s favor. 

“It saved the fishery,” says Orr, who explains that under derby fishing the fleet would quickly meet its quota for halibut bycatch, shutting down the fishery for the season. In 2007, he says, the fleet cap of halibut was taken by the beginning of August. 

“In 2008 and beyond when vessels had been assigned individual amounts of halibut no fishery was closed because of halibut bycatch,” says Orr.

As a multi-species fishery the harvest also includes rock sole, which is slightly bigger than yellowfin and has a harvest of around 50,000 metric tons per year. The fleet’s flatfish catch also includes rex and flathead sole and Alaska plaice. 

Arrowtooth flounder has been another success story of the switch to the catch-share system. Because of enzymes that break down its flesh, arrowtooth has typically been harvested for its frill for sushi bars. 

Orr says with the expanded time to fish, the fleet has been able to find areas with arrowtooth in better condition, which they’ve been able to export to China for its meat. In recent years landings more than doubled from typically around 15,000 pounds to more than 40,000 pounds in 2009.

The fishery’s sustainability factor, which also included a mandatory switch to lower-impact trawling gear in 2008, has helped bring an increased attention to the flatfish, according to Joe Furtado, executive VP of Eastern Fisheries in New Bedford, Mass. 

“I think the increase is due in part to the traceability of our fish,” says Furtado, who says that the company’s main focus for its Alaska groundfish program is ensuring that the necessary controls are in place from the boat all the way to its customers.

“We source our wild-caught flatfish from one of our parent companies, produce the products through one of our subsidiaries in China and distribute it through our factories here in the United States,” explains Furtado. “Our customers appreciate that our vertical integration allows us to bring MSC-certified sole and flounder to market at very competitive pricing. I couldn’t be happier with our flatfish program.”

Orr also believes that the product is expanding — and that’s there’s room for even more interest in the market.

“Especially with our ability to sell it as a sustainable, wild Alaska seafood, we’re being successful in improving our market share and getting the word out there about what a good, sustainable resource it is,” says Orr.

 

Assistant Editor Melissa Wood can be e-mailed at mwood@divcom.com

May 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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