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Top Species: Langostinos

Novel and niche, these sea creatures garner loyal following

By Joanne Friedrick
October 01, 2013

A small but desirable segment of the seafood industry, langostinos are a limited-distribution product caught primarily by Chilean producers for sale within the United States. 

The langostino industry is an example of how well a government can regulate and manage a fishery, says Robert Landy, VP of frozen purchasing for Stavis Seafood in Boston. Under direction of Sernapesca Chile, the Chilean fishing authority, the fishery has rebounded, he says. The harvest hit a low point in 2001, but quotas and landings have increased annually since. 

There are two langostino fisheries in Chile: red langostinos (Pleuroncodes monodon) found in the south, and larger yellow langostinos (Cervimunida johni) in the north. Once cooked and peeled, the langostinos look the same, says Landy.

About 90 percent of the quota — which was 1.2 million pounds of finished meat last year — comes to the United States as a chemical-free, frozen cooked product, says Landy. And of that, a little more than half is 60- to 100-count per pound, with the remainder 100- to 200-count.

Most of the langostinos come to the United States because the market was established here, with major restaurant chains utilizing it, notes Landy. Because prices have increased in recent years, jumping from around $7.50 a pound to $11, Landy says it has started to compete with American lobster (Homarus americanus).

When it was less expensive, langostino was used as a filler for lobster rolls, and still is often found as an ingredient in seafood bisque or as a seafood garnish on entrées, he says.

Deciphering the species 

Langostinos have sometimes been confused with lobster, given their similar appearance, although they are much smaller in size and yield less usable claw meat than lobsters. They are also referred to as scampi, which evokes images of shrimp or even crayfish, although that is a misnomer as well.

Restaurant chains such as Red Lobster, Long John Silver’s and Rubio’s were early langostino buyers, according to Todd Wendt, VP at Seatech Corp. in Lynwood, Wash. The product was initially marketed by some restaurants as lobster, until the Food and Drug Administration intervened in 2005 and approved the use of “langostino lobster.”

Even though those chains aren’t marketing langostinos regularly these days, Wendt says demand is still strong, “but supply has been down a bit and price has increased.”

He still brings in a couple of containers to supply mostly full-service restaurants, he says. The QSRs helped to increase the popularity of langostinos, says Wendt, who has also seen it sold at Costco and Trader Joe’s, depending on market prices.

Langostinos should continue to be popular, he says, although sales to Asia could impact what happens in the United States. 

“Opening Asia has been a bit of a game changer,” he notes. “If it becomes popular in China, that would diminish the amount coming to the United States.”

Similar to Stavis, Seatech deals primarily in cooked meat in the 60- to 90-count size, but he has brought in raw, shell-on product in the past. 

There are also other species of langostinos that have garnered some attention — a Chinese langostino (Metanephrops thomsoni), also known as the red-banded lobster, and a species from El Salvador. 

Yet another species is Pleuronocodes planipes, which is harvested in deep waters about 20 miles off the coast of Nicaragua and El Salvador, and produces very small meat in the 200- to 300-count size, says Landy. However, he notes, that fishery died off in 2011, possibly from an algal bloom and hasn’t recovered yet. Both Landy and Wendt don’t see the Chinese product as a viable alternative because of its inferior quality.

A niche within a niche 

Also part of the mix, although a different species, are the langoustines that are found in the cold waters of the North Sea and Northeast Atlantic. Landy recalls bringing in tails from Iceland and now deals in head-on langoustines from Denmark (Nephrops norvegicus) or New Zealand (Metanephrops challengeri). 

These langoustines are a boutique item, says Landy, and mostly end up in high-end restaurants. The head-on versions sell for $10 a pound, but only about one-third of the animal is edible, he says, so it is more in the range of $30 to $35 a pound for the meat.

“It’s like a large, head-on shrimp, in that it’s a very specialized item,” says Landy. 

Most countries producing langoustines sell them domestically, he notes, such as South Africa, which has a quota of just 30,000 pounds.

Scotland is a major player in langoustines, accounting for more than 70 percent of the total landings within the United Kingdom. In 2011, Scotland landed 24,340 metric tons (MT), while the rest of the U.K. brought in just over 10,000 MT. It also lands more than two-thirds of the worldwide quota for the Nephrops species.

Much of Scotland’s production stays within Europe, with product exported primarily to Italy, France and Spain, although Denmark, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Portugal, Malta and China are also buyers, according to data supplied by Seafood Scotland in Edinburgh. 

Scottish langoustines are mostly trawl-caught, with smaller vessels operating inshore and larger ones offshore. 

Nicki Holmyard, communications and public relations for Seafood Scotland, says the Scottish langoustines aren’t common within the United States. In fact, she notes, langoustines were being used in the World Association of Chefs Societies’ Global Chef Competition semifinals around the world throughout 2013, but weren’t allowed into the United States because there was no paperwork in place.

Browne Trading Co. in Portland, Maine, has been offering the New Zealand langoustines for many years, says Nicholas Branchina, director of marketing. “It’s a legacy item,” he says. Browne sells langoustines through wholesale channels, its retail store and online.

Clients often become familiar with langoustines during their travels to Europe, he says, or they’ve experienced them at a fine restaurant and are looking to recreate the experience at home.

“It’s a delicacy, a novelty and an investment,” says Branchina. 

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

  September 2013 - SeaFood Business

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