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Product Spotlight: Capelin

Whole fish find more favor in zoos than in restaurants, but there's a growing upscale market for capelin caviar

The lowly little capelin seldom appears as whole fish, since it is valued more for its roe. - Norwegian Seafood Export Council
Chris Anderson
March 01, 2005

Over the past few years, upscale retailers and restaurateurs have found that capelin roe is an affordable, versatile alternative to traditional caviar varieties. In fact, Mallotus villosus is valued more for its eggs than as a food fish.

Because there is such a small market for capelin, the egg-bearing females are separated from the males and processed for roe, while the males are used primarily for fertilizer or fish meal or in some cases sold to zoos and theme parks. If you’ve ever seen a seal show at an aquarium or Shamu at Sea World, the fish they are fed as a reward were most likely capelin.

This small, smelt-like species reaches a maximum length of 10 inches. Capelin spend most of their lives in the open sea, moving close to land only for spawning. They are an important part of the food chain; it is estimated that Atlantic cod derive as much as 40 percent of their total food source from the silvery schools of this species.

The capelin fishery is confined to the North Atlantic, from Newfoundland past Iceland to the coast of Norway. Iceland is by far the largest producer of capelin, recording a harvest in 2002 of more than 1 million metric tons.

The main market for capelin roe today is found in Asia, from China to Indonesia to Japan where it is called masago, a prized ingredient and garnish for sushi.

Still, there is a small and some say growing market for capelin caviar in North America as restaurants look for a replacement for imported beluga, sevruga and other sturgeon caviar.

“It’s not the kind of caviar you would sit and enjoy by itself with a glass of champagne,” says Rick Benito, owner and president of Atlanta-based Gourmet USA, an
online retailer and distributor of specialty foods.

“But for chefs looking for a garnish or as an ingredient for an entrée [capelin] can be a good substitute.”

The primary fishing season for capelin in Iceland is from January through March. The early season catch is graded by sex and by size and the females are frozen for shipping to Asia.

“In the early part of the season, the females will yield about 12 percent in roe, but as spawning season in March approaches that goes up to nearly 20 percent,” says Johann Jonsson, general manager of SIF Canada in Prescott, Nova Scotia.

“Once they are full of roe, the capelin are not frozen but pro­cessed for their roe in Iceland instead.”

Capelin are also caught off of Newfoundland in late June and July, though the total harvest of 30,000 tons pales in comparison to the Icelandic catch.

Still, it is an important fishery for the province, says Fred Woodman, president of Woodman Sea Products Ltd. in New Harbour, Newfoundland.

“Unlike a lot of fish, capelin is a fishery whose benefits tend to spread, so everyone ends up with a few pennies in their pocket,” he says.

And pennies are what each fish is worth. Woodman says prices for whole frozen female capelin with roe range anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 per ton depending on the size of the fish.

“Anything less than 45 count per kilo will get you the most money with the price decreasing as you get to 50 or 60 count,” Woodman says.

The prices in Newfoundland were about one-third lower in the late 1990s, Woodman notes, as Japanese buyers focused on sourcing product from Iceland.

“In Iceland, because they fish for capelin early in the year, they got a bit of a jump on us,” he says. “But now it seems the buyers want to hedge their bets a little.

“Plus many Japanese buyers are already here for the snow crab, so they stay around another week or two to see what they can pick up for capelin.”

During processing, capelin caviar is colored and in some cases flavored to produce a range of hues and tastes — from jet black to golden and from spicy to ginger.

Some of the capelin roe sold to Japan eventually makes its way back to the United States via Japanese food distributors who sell to U.S. sushi restaurants. But a small percentage finds its way directly to specialty food distributors in the United States who sell the caviar both to white tablecloth restaurants and a small number of specialty retailers.

“It is not easy to sell the capelin caviar to sushi restaurants, since most of the sushi chefs prefer to buy their masago from Japanese companies,” says Patrick Bachelier, corporate chef with Marquis Caviar of Miami. “But we have seen strong interest in capelin caviar from hotels, cruise lines and white-tablecloth restaurants.”

Joel Assouline, owner of Assouline & Ting, a retailer and specialty food distributor in Philadelphia, says his sales of capelin caviar are growing roughly 10 percent annually, buoyed by increased interest in sushi.

Seventy-five percent of Assouline’s sales of capelin caviar are to specialty food retailers, such as Trader Joe’s, where customers can choose soy- and wasabi-flavored capelin caviar for $2.99 per 3.5-ounce jar.

“It is still a niche product, but as more Americans become familiar with Japanese food, the more they want to bring it home and try it for themselves,” Assouline says.

Bachelier says capelin caviar is versatile, lending itself both as a garnish and to add texture to a finished dish.

“It doesn’t have a very strong flavor but tends to keep the flavors that are added in processing,” he says. “So the black capelin caviar has the squid ink and the golden a ginger flavor.

“And because the eggs are tinier and crunchier than paddlefish or beluga caviar it adds a nice element to a finished dish.”

Compared with other caviar, whose prices are often measured in hundreds of dollars per ounce as opposed to dollars per ounce, capelin has carved a small yet solid niche with foodservice operators looking to provide a bit of luxury while keeping a strict eye on food costs.

“When (sturgeon) caviar became so expensive, we looked for other products or new ways to enjoy caviar that weren’t so expensive,” says Assouline.

“Capelin caviar is one of those affordable luxuries.”

March 2012 - SeaFood Business


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