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Product Spotlight: Cusk

Low supply and little demand make this groundfish hard to find

The few mainstream retailers and chefs who offer cusk wish they could get more of the tasty affordable whitefish. - Laura Lee Dobson
Chris Anderson
February 01, 2005

Cusk is an underrated groundfish in the U.S. market, despite its low price, sweet, mild flavor and a firm flesh that lends itself to a range of applications. For buyers who can source cusk, there is small but steady demand in Hispanic markets and independent restaurants, which appreciate this affordable alternative to higher-priced whitefish like cod and haddock.

“Where we are selling most of our cusk is in the Latino market,” says Jim Scannell, vice president of CFE International in Watertown, Mass. “Cusk is a price item. Because it is a whiter fish that resembles a codfish in color, people buy it instead because it costs less.”

But keeping even the limited cusk market supplied is a challenge. Today, due to the severe decline of North Atlantic fish stocks, domestic cusk is no longer a targeted fishery. Most is harvested as bycatch by longliners targeting other species such as haddock, cod, pollock and halibut, so domestic landings are very low.

Cusk harvests off Maine and Canada have been in steady decline for the past 30 years. According to a report published in 2003 by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, the cusk population off Canada and Maine has decreased by more than 90 percent since 1970. As such, Canada has listed the species, Brosme brosme, as endangered since May 2003.

The National Marine Fisheries Service reports 2003 U.S. landings at 104,000 metric tons, a drop from 149,000 in 2002. Processors in Canada and the United States source the bulk of their cusk from Iceland, which has a dedicated cusk fishery. However, imports are in even greater decline, to 73,000 metric tons in 2003, down from 290,000 metric tons in 2002.

Most of what ends up in North America is salted or dried and sold in urban centers with large Latino populations.

“I don’t think there is any cusk we get that we sell as fresh,” says Fenton Cunningham, co-owner of Sea Star Seafoods, a small seafood processor in Clark’s Harbour, Nova Scotia. “Every cusk that comes in here, we salt.”

Cusk prices over the past couple of years haven’t wavered much, Cunningham says, hovering right around 50 cents per pound for whole fish. After salting and processing, Sea Star fetches only $1.50 to $3 per pound for its cusk, de­pending whether it’s skin-on, bone-in, semi-bone­less or fillet. That translates to $2.99 to $3.99 a pound at retail.

Because cusk is such a low-priced fish, it is also a low priority for many processors, says CFE’s Scannell.

“Typically, processors will take care of the highest-priced and fastest-moving fish first, and those are haddock and pollock,” he says. “So any cusk they take in will sit in the back of the cooler salted until they can get to it to fillet it and dry it.”

Yet this doesn’t mean there isn’t a steady, albeit small, market for the dried fish.

Further, because the market for cusk is quite narrow, CFE sells it primarily through non-traditional channels, such as Latino grocery distributors that specialize in that market niche.

Scannell says CFE sells only about 60,000 pounds of cusk a year, a tiny fraction of the 250,000 to 500,000 pounds of fish it sells each week.

But some processors wish they could get their hands on more cusk.

“If we could get another truckload of cusk each month, we could sell it easily,” says Grace White, president of CanJam Trading Ltd. of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

Recently, White says it has been difficult to get cusk in any good quantity from her sources in Iceland. She surmises it is because the price for the fish is low and has little promise of going any higher.

“It’s a more expensive fish to catch, and they are not going to get any more money for it than they have in the past, so why should they bother?” asks White.

Offering more money for the fish isn’t a solution she says, because as a price-dependent item, it would be difficult for cusk to support higher retail prices.

While the market for salted and dried cusk is small, the market for fresh cusk is even smaller.

“I’m not aware of any store where I could buy fresh cusk,” says Scannell.

That doesn’t stop intrepid retailers like Coastal Seafood, a three-store operation in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

“We aim to have the best selection of any seafood stores in the country,” says Tim Lauer, general manager. “So while it is not a regular item, we will bring in cusk four or five times a year as a special item.”

The retailer’s typical price for fresh cusk is $6 to $7 per pound, Lauer says. It takes a little pushing to move what he buys, so Lauer uses an on-site kitchen to prepare the cusk for his sales staff.

“That way, when a customer comes in, [the salespeople] can tell them first hand about the fish because they’ve tasted it themselves.”

In all, Lauer figures that when he orders cusk, he gets about 40 pounds, split among the three stores, making it more a statement about providing the greatest possible variety than a sales-driven product. Nonetheless, Lauer counts himself a cusk fan.

“It’s a great-tasting fish, and because it is firm, you can do a lot more with it than you can with either cod or sole,” says Lauer.

At nearby Café Brenda in downtown Minneapolis, Chef-owner Brenda Langton also gives cusk high marks.

“It is an occasional item now, but earlier in the year, it was a regular menu item for about six months,” says Langton, who has operated her seafood-and-vegetarian restaurant for more than 26 years. “I think it is a hidden treasure that more people should try.”

Apparently, her customers agreed, snapping up close to 100 plates of cusk each week. The dish featured cusk with a passion fruit and mustard butter sauce and sold for $16.95.

But like processors of salt cusk, Langton has suffered through recent supply problems and now only features cusk as a special.

“If I could find a good source for Icelandic cusk, I’d put it back on my menu,” she says.

Despite the current supply problems, Scannell says there will always be a market for cusk.

“If we are putting together an order, it might have 50 cases of cod, 20 cases of haddock and one case of cusk,” he says. “So it’s a small market, but for some it is always part and parcel of their usual order with us.”

February 2005 - SeaFood Business

 

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