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What's in Store: Alive and kicking

Live seafood thrives in Asian markets, but remains an obstacle for some American consumers

By Christine Blank
November 05, 2011

The live seafood market is exploding in stores across the United States as an influx of Asian customers has changed the landscape of traditional seafood retailing. While many Americans are still leery of buying live fish and shellfish from tanks, more consumers want to pick out the still-wriggling seafood themselves.

“It has grown by leaps and bounds with the changing demographics in the country. A lot of Asians are coming in, particularly Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai,” says Haroon Chaudhri, director of live and fresh sales for Turners Falls, Mass.-based Australis Aquaculture. Australis supplies around 25,000 pounds of live barramundi (which Asian customers refer to as sea bass) weekly to retailers — primarily Asian markets.

A New Jersey Department of Agriculture survey about the live seafood market in the Northeast conducted in 2005 indicated the category’s growth. On average, shoppers visited stores that carried live fish 6.2 times per month and spent $14.80 on live seafood per visit. The majority of these shoppers were Chinese (79 percent) and English was not their primary language.

The increased sales of live fish in recent years is partly due to the immigration of higher-income Chinese into the country, says Chaudhri.

“There is an astronomical demand, and they will pay the money. They like to pick it out themselves — like at stores in Chinatown where king crab goes for $40 or $50 a pound,” he adds.

For many Chinese people, live fish indicates health and good luck, explains Chaudhri.

“They want to see the eyes, the gills and the heart beating. If they cannot get live, then they will buy frozen because certain species cannot be brought into the country live,” he says. Shoppers surveyed in the New Jersey study said quality and freshness are the top reasons they buy live seafood, followed by tradition.

Tilapia is the most popular live seafood item, according to Chaudhri and retailers. Survey respondents also reported that they purchased live tilapia most often, followed by hybrid striped bass and carp. All types of sea bass, eel, cod, flounder, sea urchin, crab and shrimp also sell well in Asian markets, according to Chaudhri.

Sky Foods, a new supermarket in Queens, N.Y., is an example of an Asian market that is deeply entrenched in the live business. The 36,000-square-foot store’s seafood department carries around 30 varieties of live creatures including Dungeness crab, marble goby fish and frogs.

Asian-focused chain Pacific Ocean Market Place in Broomfield, Colo., has two locations in Colorado and will open an additional store this year. The retailer’s live tanks feature lobster for around $10 a pound, but they also contain tilapia, Dungeness crab and a multitude of other live species. Pacific Ocean ensures that its product is fresh by receiving shipments from suppliers via air twice weekly.

While Asian markets and some Hispanic-themed stores are primarily involved in the live seafood market, it is expanding to some traditional supermarkets and seafood markets.

Since the late 1970s, many Saanichton, British Columbia-based Thrifty Foods stores have featured live shellfish tanks in its seafood departments.

“We don’t do live fish and are not set up to do so,” says Dave Sherwood, seafood category manager for Thrifty. Live local crabs retail for between CAD 10 and 15 each, depending on the season, and live prawns are also featured.

“It goes really well for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and throughout summer. The rest of the year, it is not a huge item; it is more of a draw,” says Sherwood. While many Thrifty shoppers say they like to buy fresh seafood, some customers believe keeping live seafood in tanks is “cruel,” according to Sherwood. “We tell them that the crabs go from the ocean to our store. If they are not sold in a couple of days, we cook them.”

Blue Oasis Pure Shrimp, which opened its doors this past summer in Las Vegas, also plans to supply its live Pacific white shrimp to retailers in the area.

“Seafood markets — not Asian markets — are interested in carrying live fish,” says Scott McManus, CEO of Blue Oasis.

When supplying live shrimp for retail, size is not as important to buyers, according to McManus. “Price also isn’t as big a concern, when you are already shipping across the country [from Blue Oasis’s facility in Newburg, N.D.],” he adds.

Despite the interest in the live market by some supermarkets, Asian markets and independent fish markets, Chaudhri warns that Americans are still wary of purchasing live fish.

“Americans have become so protected that they don’t really want to see where it comes from,” says Chaudhri. Grocery stores that are adding live seafood tanks are primarily appealing to Asian and European customers, he adds.

Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.


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