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Finfish Focus: Mahimahi

Production has dipped along with demand, creating a lackluster market

Steve Heddericg
November 01, 2005

Mahimahi means “strong-strong” in Hawaiian, but the market this fall for mahi could better be described as “so-so.”

Blame it on the time of year, the economy or overfishing. For whatever reason, mahimahi had a lackluster season coming off the summer and could remain in limbo for some time.

Anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 metric tons are delivered to the global market each year, and by most accounts mahimahi is a sustainable fishery. Also known as dolphinfish or dorado, mahi are prolific spawners that grow rapidly and have a short life span of 2 to 4 years. On rare occasions, the fish has been known to grow to 4 feet and 40 pounds within a year. A full-grown male can weigh in at 60 pounds.

Mahimahi are caught in tropical or subtropical waters (68 degrees F or warmer) worldwide, but for the U.S. market most are commercially harvested from Hawaiian waters and off the Pacific Coast of Latin America, especially Panama, Peru, Costa Rica and Ecuador. The fish is often a by-catch of the tuna fleets.

More frozen fillets have come on the market in recent years, establishing a year-round supply. Exports of frozen fillets from Ecuador and Costa Rica have increased dramatically, as well as those from Taiwan and China.

Right now demand is light and the price is high because of low production,” says Tim Lycke of Incredible Fresh in Miami. “It’s the usual cycle — the heavy production from the boats out of Central and South America will start in late November or early December and last through March. We’re starting to get a hint that things are just picking up for production from Brazil.

“The trend for mahi for the last couple of years has been horrible,” says Lycke, pointing out the short supply. “But everyone is looking and hoping for a good season this year.”

Jeff Freeman of SeaSource, an importer and distributor in Morristown, N.J., is not as optimistic as Lycke. Mahimahi accounts for 12 to 15 percent of the company’s business, with the bulk of sales in tuna, swordfish, snapper and grouper.

“The market is sloppy. I don’t see a clear trend for anything,” he says. “For mahi, the price is edging down a little, now that the boats from Ecuador and Costa Rica are starting to kick in. But overall, we’re getting into uncharted territories; there’s not many fish out there right now. But the phones aren’t ringing off the hook, either.”

Freeman ascribes much of the market malaise to the general economy, including high energy costs and ripple effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. People are shelling out more at the pump and less at their favorite restaurant.

“Much of our fish goes to restaurants, and with energy costs piling up, people just aren’t going out as much,” Freeman says. “There’s a sense of pessimism in the industry now, and it’s probably going to last for three to six months, anyway. There’s no long-term vision.”

He adds that mahimahi is volatile in price. “You can see it go from $4.25 to $1.25 in no time,” he says.

As Hurricane Rita ripped its way toward Texas, Freeman said boat fuel prices had already increased 40 cents in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and similar jumps were in effect for trucking and airfreight costs.

“Basically, it means a 10- to 15-cent increase per pound for the consumer,” Freeman says.

To bolster himself for the ride ahead, Freeman plans to import a fraction of what he usually does and look closely at accounts receivable. “We’re stuck in the mud at the moment, so we’re going to be very proactive.”

“It’s been a weak year for mahimahi, both here in Hawaii and internationally,” says Bob Fram of Garden & Valley Isle Seafood in Honolulu.

With 600 to 700 accounts in the Hawaiian Islands, Fram occasionally airfreights H&G mahimahi from Costa Rica at $3.95 a pound.

“That’s if you can get it,” he says. “There’s usually a spring burst and a fall burst, but I can’t tell anything this year.”

Fram says superseiners, some more than 700 feet long and dragging nets at 2,000 feet “over an area of 50 city blocks,” are causing substantial depletion of the mahimahi fishery. He favors the traditional hook–and-line or longline harvest method.

“Every year the fishery becomes less and less, and who do you point to?” asks Fram. “It’s the big seiners. They’re catching them smaller and smaller, exploiting the baby schools; eventually you wonder if it’s a sustainable fishery.”

“The traditional spike comes in December, but it’s been an odd year in general for mahimahi,” says Ed Youngman, VP of West Coast sales for Empress International of Port Washington, N.Y. “It’s a wild fishery, and the catch can be sporadic,” he says. “My crystal ball never works here.”

“The supply is looking dimmer, it’s starting to look like shades of two years ago when production was way down,” Freeman says.

During peak season — late November through March — Lycke deals with 20,000 pounds of mahimahi a week. Off-season yields are closer to 2,000 to 8,000 pounds each week, he says.

Fram says a normal day on the commercial fish auction in Honolulu will see about 100 small, medium and large wedges of mahimahi, about half caught by longliners and half by charter boats. In mid-September, 8- to 12-pound pieces were getting $3.50 a pound; 13-16, $4; and 17-25, $6.

In late September, 1- to 3-pound skin-on fillets brought $1.25 to $1.40 per pound; 3-5, $1.85 to $1.95; and 5-7, $1.95-$2.15, says Empress’ Youngman.

Mahi in the market
“For fresh, look for firmness and a slight mucus-like outer coating and moist, translucent flesh,” says Tom Harvey, head chef at Nava in suburban Atlanta. Flesh color should be white to pinkish, but keep away if it’s grayish or dull, he adds.

Figure on a shelf life of maybe a week from harvest, Freeman says.

“It’s a high-volume, low-margin fish,” he says. “It has to turn quickly.”

Freeman prefers mahimahi from Ecuador. Because of the proximity to the hot equator, the boats stay out for short periods of time, so the fish is fresh when it’s landed.

But Harvey finds it hard to tell a difference between Hawaiian and South American mahimahi.

“The raw flesh is probably softer when they’re caught in the warm waters of Ecuador,” he says, “but the cooked product is the same. You get great results from both areas.”

Fram claims Hawaiian mahimahi are slightly lighter and sweeter than its South American counterpart because they feed on flying fish, squid, triggerfish and other offshore food.

“The Costa Rican fish feed more on inshore food that make them more robust,” he says. “It’s a subtle difference, but good chefs can tell.”

Chef Harvey says mahimahi delivers a good bang for the buck. “We serve it frequently, and it’s become immensely popular,” he adds.

“It’s somewhere between a true steak fish and something more delicate,” says
Harvey, who often prepares mahimahi as a special using Southwestern spices, habanero chiles and corn tortillas as a crusting agent. The special is plated for $20 to $22.

Harvey typically runs a mahimahi special a few days mid-week and on weekends.

“We’re finding that treating fish like red meat is more popular than ever,” he notes. “We’re even trying to couple red wines with it. It’s challenging to cook with and inspires creativity.”

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