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Top Species: Yellowfin Tuna

Tuna species popular despite supply issues

Buyers have their work cut out for them in sourcing this prized fish. - Photo courtesy of Stockfood
By Joanne Friedrick
March 05, 2012

Prized by sport fishermen, sushi houses and restaurateurs alike, yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) hales from warm, equatorial waters. But yellowfin suppliers note that the stocks have been tighter than in the past and prices higher as a result of its favored status.

“I’ve never seen [supply] as tight as it is now,” says Tim Lycke, owner of Incredible Fish in Miami. While supplies typically dry up between Christmas and New Year’s when the fleet is in, Lycke says the lack of fish has extended beyond the holidays.

Competition from Japan is one of the issues, he says, in part because fishermen there are still recovering from last year’s tsunami. In turn, he says, the Japanese are buying from Vietnam, Thailand and Fiji, and are competing with U.S. companies for fish.

Through November 2011, the United States imported nearly 40 million pounds of yellowfin, with Vietnam leading the list of supplier countries at 6.77 million pounds, followed by Trinidad and Tobago at 4.72 million pounds and Indonesia at 4.42 million pounds. Other key suppliers included Suriname, the Philippines and Panama.

Within the United States, Hawaii leads the list of states landing yellowfin, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service. In 2010, Hawaii landed 2.4 million pounds, which accounted for more than half of the entire 4.5-million-pound U.S. total. Other key harvest states were Florida, which accounted for about 483,000 pounds, New Jersey at approximately 447,000 pounds and Louisiana with approximately 440,000 pounds.

One supply issue is that yellowfin doesn’t have a true substitute. “It’s a staple in sushi bars and white tablecloth restaurants,” says Rex Ito, president of Prime Time Seafood in Los Angeles, “but unfortunately it’s pricey right now.”

About 80 percent of Ito’s customers prefer yellowfin to bigeye tuna, which some consider a suitable alternative.

“The average consumer understands yellowfin,” says Mike Machado, sales manager for Boston Sword & Tuna in Boston. Most people prefer a nice red fish like yellowfin, which also is leaner than bigeye. “People who try to substitute bigeye for yellowfin find they need to re-educate the consumer.” 

Machado says wholesale prices for No. 1 grade yellowfin have been in the range of $7 to $8 a pound, while No. 2-plus is going for $6 to $7. As prices rise, he says, some customers have eased off on buying, so prices may drop.

Demand is likely to remain high for yellowfin tuna as restaurants and seafood markets experience increased interest during Lent, says Lycke. Price may deter some buyers, he says, but with no clear alternative to tuna, most are willing to pay for it. 

At Swan River Seafood and Fish Market in Naples, Fla., Manager Sonny Russell has watched yellowfin prices rise and supply tighten. He works with a Miami-based supplier to get product from Costa Rica, or he buys it from Hawaii or Trinidad.The Hawaiian product is usually No. 1 premium grade. In a pinch, Russell will use bigeye, but he prefers the sheen and fat content of yellowfin. His customers seek yellowfin because they want a tuna that’s high quality and only needs a minimal amount of cooking. Russell says although yellowfin, also known as ahi, is used for sushi, he recommends to his clients that they don’t eat it raw. “By far,” he says, “yellowfin is the most popular tuna,” followed by bigeye. He doesn’t carry albacore in the market, but in the restaurant, he says, they do use CO-treated tuna for the ahi appetizer.

When it comes to the sustainability of yellowfin, Ito, who has a background in biology, says “the jury is still out.” Debbie Lewis, director of compliance and sustainability at Day Boat Seafood in Lake Park, Fla., says Day Boat began seeking Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification for the yellowfin it catches, but has put that on hold for now. The scientific studies that were conducted beginning in 2010 need to be updated, she says, adding that new research would take about six months. In the meantime, she says, they are watching what The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas has to say on the status of the yellowfin population.

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine
 

Find other SeaFood Business articles with yellowfin tuna here.

March 2012 - SeaFood Business

 

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