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Species Focus: Pollock

MSC certification will further enhance the popular whitefish's profile

Dexter Van Zile
February 01, 2005

Alaska pollock has long been a staple protein in Japan, the United States and Europe, so suppliers really don’t need much help in stoking demand for their product.

However, the recent decision by the Marine Stewardship Council to certify Bering Sea pollock as a responsibly managed fishery could boost the product’s visibility in the minds of the consumer, who typically knows the versatile whitefish as a fast-food sandwich, as fish sticks from the frozen-food section of the grocery story or as surimi seafood.

This mild-tasting, flaky but firm fish is used extensively in the production of surimi, which is shipped to Japan and marketed in the United States as imitation crab. Pollock fillets are also sold as frozen blocks, which are subsequently thawed for use in foodservice and supermarket seafood departments.

Additionally, these blocks and pollock mince (the meat that is left on the bone after processing) are used to manufacture frozen fish sticks that are sold in frozen-food sections in grocery stores.

Predictable and priced right
Pollock can support all these various uses for a simple reason: Its ability to provide consumers with a predictably good taste in a variety of products at a reasonable price is unrivaled.

“Pollock is a wonderful fish for the price,” says Gary Jannusch, director of administration, sales, for Trident Sea­foods in Seattle. “It’s by far the best value for the money.”

The high volume of pollock Alaska’s Bering Sea fishery yields, nearly 1.5 million metric tons annually, is another selling point for the product, says Charles Gibbons, president of Multi-Fish & Seafood, headquartered in Mill Creek, Wash.

“When people need a belly-filler product, it’s the species of choice because of its blandness,” Gibbons says. “It’s an easy product to work with, and the volumes are there to keep up with demand.”

Pollock fillets are typically sold in block form with pinbone in (the preferred form for European markets) or out (primarily in U.S. markets). Additionally, some processors offer blocks of deep-skinned fillets with both the skin and the underlying layer of fat removed.

According to Jannusch, that procedure adds a 20 to 25 cent premium to the per-pound cost of the block.

“There are some specialty groups that prefer the skin to be shaved off ahead of time,” he says.

Currently, processors don’t have a lot of frozen product left over from the 2004 season, and as a result, prices are expected to rise in 2005.

“You can’t buy a truckload of once-frozen if your life depended on it,” says Gibbons.

“It’s all gone to Europe.”

The weak dollar, which has made American products relatively inexpensive to purchase, has created a buying frenzy for Alaska pollock, reports Gibbons, who estimates that prices will increase by 20 percent in 2005.

“No. 1 blocks that right now are under $1 I see going to $1.20, with some fillets going as high at $1.40 a pound,” says Gibbons.

Another factor leading to higher prices is a decline in the Russian fishery, Gibbons notes. The Russian fishery in the North Pacific used to provide approximately 35 percent of the world supply, he notes, but recent restrictions have reduced that amount to about 15 to20 percent.

With the exception of a small portion caught in Washington state, virtually all of the pollock landed in the United States is harvested off Alaska and manufactured into surimi or into fillets.

The global market
The primary market for pollock fillets has traditionally been Japan and Korea, but a growing portion of the annual catch has been shipped to Europe in recent years. In 2003, when the United States shipped a total of 27,000 metric tons of fillets valued at $283 million to Japan and Korea , it also shipped 61,000 metric tons valued at $113 million to Germany and the Netherlands.

In 1999, the numbers were reversed, with Japan and Korea importing 16,000 metric tons of fillets worth $113 million and Germany and the Netherlands combined purchasing less than 600 metric tons.

“A strong euro has definitely increased various processors’ interest in selling to Europe,” Jannusch says, adding that European demand for fillets has processors struggling to decide whether to produce surimi or fillets.

A strong euro might encourage harvesters and processors to emphasize the European markets, but they also have to protect their domestic markets, says Jeff Suber, VP of purchasing for Captain D’s Seafood, a restaurant chain which operates 560 franchise,s mostly in the Southeast.

Captain D’s uses between 12 million and 15 million pounds of pollock annually.

To be sure, buyers may have to be flexible on pricing in the coming year, but one question facing processors is whether they want to maintain a business relationship with domestic suppliers that have reliable brands capable of moving a lot of product.

“Will Europe take a hit on us? It depends on what these processors want to do in terms of maintaining some sort of commitment to their buyers,” Suber says. “Long-term commitment is what our brand is about.”

The MSC advantage
During the upcoming year, Alaska pollock, especially the fish harvested from the Bering Sea, could have another marketing advantage, especially in Europe: MSC certification.

Pollock harvested from the Gulf of Alaska was set to receive a similar certification at the end of 2004; objections filed by environmentalists prompted the organization to initiate an additional review process, which will have no effect on the certification on Bering Sea pollock.

The MSC certification for pollock will likely have a greater impact on consumers in Europe than in the United States, Jannusch says.

“I don’t think the U.S. average buyer has much familiarity with the MSC certification, but in Europe they definitely do,” he says. “They seem to be a few years ahead of us in that respect.”

Overall, the MSC certification confirms what buyers and harvesters have known about the fishery for years: It’s well managed, with harvest levels set well below limits required to achieve maximum sustainable yield.

This is the consequence of the American Fisheries Act, passed in 1997, which rationalized and privatized the offshore Alaska pollock fishery, reducing the number of boats in the fishery to about a dozen, reports Jane DiCosimo, senior fishery-management-plan coordinator for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The small number of catcher-processor boats that have predictable access to the offshore fishery ended up forming a co­- op­­erative, which in turn allowed boat owners to determine when and how much product is landed, ending the derby that made rationalization necessary.

“Product quality has gone up significantly,” she says. “The type of product they produce lends itself to a slower-paced fishery.

“They have time to change equipment onboard the vessel and process product for different markets, as opposed to the old-style derby fishery, where they could catch as much as they could and stick it in the hold. And there’s less bycatch.”

DiCosimo reports that there are proposals to pursue the same type of rationalization plan for the 200 inshore catcher boats that sell their catches to onshore processing facilities. That would give them the same benefits enjoyed by the offshore fleet.

“The onshore boats saw how successful the new style of management has become and have said, ‘Me too,’” she says.

Alaska’s pollock harvest is split into an A season, which starts in January and ends in March, and a B season, which starts in July and lasts through September. The interim 2005 total allowable catch of Bering Sea pollock, which comprises the bulk of Alaska’s pollock fishery, is set at 1.48 million metric tons, down slightly from 1.49 million metric tons last year.

In the next few years the TAC could be reduced, but not by much, says Jim Ianelli, fishery biologist for the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.. The reason for the possible harvest reduction, Ianelli explains, is survey data indicating a decline in biomass of mature females.

While the current biomass of an estimated 2.5 million tons is 30 percent higher than the biomass targets required by the Magnuson Stevens Act, scientists expect that number to decline, along with the TAC, Ianelli says.

“The biomass is anticipated to come down in the Bering Sea,” he says, emphasizing that this decline is no indicator of a problem with the fishery but a consequence of variability in the abundance of year classes in the species.

This downward trend of the biomass could cause a tightening of the market says Glenn Reed, president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association in Seattle.

Another factor that limits the catch of pollock in Alaska is an overall limit on the state's total groundfish harvest, set at 2 million tons annually. efforts to protect the stocks are helped by two factors, Ianelli adds: a relatively small number of harvesters who are committed to protecting the resource and an extensive amount of data on the fishery.

In addition to annual surveys, the National Marine Fisheries Service collects a substantial amount of observer data to keep track of landings. Also, some of the larger catcher boats are outfitted with acoustical sounders to estimate the abundance of fish. "It's a data-rich fishery," Ianelli says.

In any event, the MSC certification should prove a boon for pollock marketers, because it highlights the success the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has had in managing the fishery.

February 2005 - SeaFood Business

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