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Species Focus: Tuna

Yellowfin sales remain steady, though worries about overfishing and mercury have cast a shadow over this popular species

Howard Riell
March 01, 2005

Yellowfin, known in various locales as Pacific yellowfin, ahi (Hawaiian) and “light meat” tuna, could almost be classified as comfort food, with a mild, meaty taste similar to swordfish.

It is served raw as sashimi and in sushi. Some is also canned. It’s a somewhat darker product than canned albacore and is often blended with skipjack tuna.

Yellowfin (Thunnus albacares) belongs almost exclusively to the fresh market today. It is purchased mostly as ahi in restaurants and as ahi steaks in supermarkets. Yellowfin is also the largest species of tuna, with market size running in the 7 1/2- to 20-pound range.

Yellowfin are harvested in the Western Pacific (35 percent), Eastern Pacific (25 percent), Indian Ocean (25 percent) and Atlantic Ocean (15 percent). Main production areas include Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colom­bia, Spain and Italy. Major markets are Japan, Western Europe and the United States.

Put in perspective, the U.S. Tuna Foundation in Washington, D.C., estimates the world’s total annual tuna catch at around 2.9 million tons. About 2 million tons of that are skipjack (representing nearly 90 percent of today’s white meat market), between 200,000 and 300,000 tons are albacore and the rest is yellowfin.

U.S. fishermen landed 4.1 million metric tons of yellowfin in 2003, up slightly from the 4 million metric tons harvested in 2002. Most of the domestic supply is imported. U.S. imports of yellowfin were around 195,000 metric tons in 2003 and nearly 160,000 metric tons through November 2004.

A growing concern over the past five years is that increased catches of baby yellowfin, especially in the Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Western Pacific, may be depleting stocks.

“All four of the major tuna fisheries in the world have expressed some concern about the level of yellowfin,” says Dave Burney, executive director of the U.S. Tuna Foundation. The major tuna fisheries have also begun implementing conservation measures. In the East Tropical Pacific this year, for instance, a month’s closure was ordered to protect bigeye and yellowfin.

In the Western Pacific, Burney says, the region’s multilateral, high-level fisheries commission “just had their big international meeting, and the issue of possible closures on that fishery were raised for the first time. They have a quota system in place in the Atlantic. The Indian Ocean has also expressed concern about the status of yellowfin. It isn’t considered overfished yet, but it is considered to now be at its [maximum sustainable yield].”

“If they allow the Spanish superseiners to keep netting the baby yellowfin near the equator, it’s going to be a disastrous year,” says Bob Fram, president/secretary of Garden and Valley Isle Seafood in Honolulu. “They concentrate their nets on the under-reproductive-size small yellowfin schools. The smaller fish is a 10- to 20-pound yellowfin, and they begin to breed around that size.”

But in locations within 5 degrees of the equator, the fish tend to group in “massive gene pools, and that’s where the superseiners that gutted the Atlantic are now targeting them,” says Fram. The result, he adds, has been “devastating. It’s just been a couple of years since they started, and every year we’re getting less.

“They’re going to put some deep dents in the Pacific tuna stock. The damage will happen very quickly, and it will be irreparable.”

Nor are the short-term prospects especially hopeful. Taiwanese “super-super” seiners reportedly can handle up to 20,000 tons of fish a year, four times the amount big purse seiners catch.

Mercury issues

A consumer-related issue is that yellowfin has the highest level of methylmercury of any of the tuna species, according to USTF’s Burney.

“No one knows where this whole mercury issue is going to be driven,” he says. “Currently there is a huge review underway inside the federal government, where the National Academy of Science is looking at mercury.”

He adds that the federal government and NAS now feel they may have gone overboard in expressing concern about mercury.

“I think they’re worried about pushing people away from fish to less healthy alternative sources of food. That may help yellowfin,” says Burney.

The USTF says the Food and Drug Administration found that skipjack contains on average 0.11 parts per million of mercury. Albacore is in the neighborhood of 0.32 ppm, while yellowfin is in the 0.7- to 0.75-ppm range — still well below the agency’s 1 ppm limit.

But, says Burney, “with all the hue and cry, there are people out there who want to lower that action level,” which could affect the market for yellowfin.

The yellowfin business has been steady, but demand has been weak because of the sluggish economy, according to Alex-Hung Tran, president and owner of Western United Fish Co. in Seattle.

“You’re dealing with a commodity item, where supply and demand are such a factor,” he notes. “When the economy is bad, people don’t go to those white-tablecloth restaurants and spend $40 for dinner.”

Tuna, says Tran, is “highly technical. You have the sashimi trade that buys nothing but No. 1 grade, and they’re paying anywhere from $6 to $9 a pound for H&G. A No. 2-plus will go to mostly the white-tablecloth sector, and that can average anywhere from $4.50 to $5.50 a pound for H&G. No. 2 and below, you’re looking at $2 or $3 a pound.”

“Sometimes you’re on a roller-coaster ride with yellowfin,” agrees Tim Lycke, general manager of Incredible Fresh in Miami. “I’ve seen them fluctuate $1 overnight. It was down three weeks ago and it shot back up.

“Today, we were at $5 per pound on 60-up yellowfins. Our 40-to-60s went out of here at $4. We probably move 30,000 to 50,000 pounds of tuna per week.”

Handle with care
Sales of yellowfin are “probably a little stronger [than for other tunas] in the retail market because people’s eyes will go for a lighter red, instead of a darker, purple-red,” says Fram.

“Also some people think fish is not as nice if it’s softer. Yellowfin is a firmer fish. Bigeye will be a little deeper color, and it will be a little creamier, a little better for sashimi.”

Yellowfin has lost some of its popularity the last few years, Fram adds, “because people are realizing, ‘Hey, if you’re going to grill it, you want something forgiving.’

Albacore is the least forgiving tuna, then yellowfin, then bigeye. Yellowfin might be a little better for tartare because of its leaner, drier texture.”

“When it comes to yellowfin and really all tunas, once they’re over-cooked they tend to be terrible pieces of meat,” notes Bob Kitagawa, seafood buyer/merchandiser for Bristol Farms in Carson, Calif.

The upscale supermarket chain does “fairly well” with yellowfin, he says. The 11 stores sell 350 to 400 pounds per week.

Bristol Farms prices it at $20.99 a pound. It advertises its yellowfin, most of which comes from the South Pacific through The American Fish & Seafood Co., “occasionally,” says Kitagawa, “but the way the tuna market has been, it’s been so expensive.

“I really don’t have room in my margins to do any promotional programs with it.”

“Where it’s caught [varies according to the season], and that makes the prices really move around,” says Phil Nabors, president of Mustard Seed Market & Café in Akron, Ohio. A second store is located in Solon, a southeast suburb of Cleveland. “Sometimes yellowfin is pretty pricey, [but] I’ll spend whatever it takes.

“The question is whether the customers will buy at that price. We have customers who don’t even look at the prices. But if it’s high, we’ll buy a lot less of it because we’ll sell a lot less of it. I can’t remember a time when we said, ‘Yellowfin is too much, we just can’t buy it this week.’”

Mustard Seed operates full-service restaurants overlooking its stores, with about 150 seats in Akron and 190 in Solon. Each reguarly features yellowfin steaks on the menu.

“It’s chef’s choice as to how it’s prepared,” says Nabors. “Our restaurants are fairly upscale, so we generally do a seared presentation with it somewhat raw in the middle. Maybe we’ll cover it with sesame seeds and a sweet glaze and serve it sliced on a salad. It sells in the restaurant for $20, and it’s a whole meal, with sides.”

Dave Snyder, seafood specialist with the 33-store, Bellingham, Wash.-based Brown & Cole Stores chain, says that while yellowfin is sold at all of his locations, he’s “got one store that does an incredible job with it. It’s a high-end store, and they sell fully half of all the yellowfin tuna we sell.”

That unit uses nearly all of the tuna as sushi. It sells for $13 or $14 a pound.

Despite the concerns, yellowfin remains a popular and, at least for now, relatively abundant choice for seafood lovers.

 

March 2012 - SeaFood Business

 

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