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Top Species: Mahimahi straddles the price-point line

Fresh supply issues leave everyone wanting more

Mahimahi is seen by menu planners as an upscale, yet affordable, white fish. - Photo courtesy of Clear Springs Foods
By Joanne Friedrick
May 01, 2014

With a South American season that started late and ended early, those dealing in mahimahi were up against the age-old problem of supply not keeping up with demand as the season wound down in March.

As a result, most suppliers had to reallocate what they did get to satisfy their customer base.

Mike Walsh, VP at Orca Bay Seafoods in Renton, Wash., says a price dispute between the fishermen and processors resulted in the late start to the season in the waters off Ecuador and Peru.

“The boats always want more than the plants want to give,” says Walsh. He notes that the fishermen, who received $2 a pound two to three years ago, but just $1.50 a pound last year, were holding out for the higher price. “They settled somewhere in the middle,” he says. 

Mahimahi is the third-best selling species for Orca Bay, which buys about 100 containers a year. The fish, also called dorado or dolphinfish, has the sweet, mild taste and flaky texture that appeals to even fussy seafood eaters, which makes it a mainstream item on many menus.

Don Kelley, procurement manager for Western Edge Seafood in Washington, Pa., says mahimahi appeals because it fits a niche for white-tablecloth restaurants as a valued fish that comes in at under $10 a pound.

“The fresh fish supply chain needs products under $10 that are higher-valued marine fish,” he says. Pollock and tilapia have their markets, points out Kelley, but mahimahi competes more with tuna and scallops, both of which are above mahimahi’s price threshold.

Like Walsh, Kelley says fresh mahimahi from South America has been harder to come by. Supply shortages were created when fishermen turned to other species when they couldn’t get the price they wanted.

“The materials just dry up faster,” he states. “Wherever they are in the processing, when the supply runs out they are finished” even if the orders aren’t filled. Western Edge received only 80 to 90 percent of what it ordered, forcing a reallocation of supplies among its customers.

South America is the primary source for fresh mahimahi, with Ecuador and Peru providing 16.5 million pounds and 11.1 million pounds of U.S. imports in 2013. The United States imported a total of more than 48 million pounds of both fresh and frozen mahimahi last year.

Asian alternatives 

An alternative to South America for mahi is Vietnam, says Kelley, which produces only frozen fish that are smaller than South American product. “The fresh wholesaler has to have a large, fresh, H&G fish that is caught on a shorter-trip vessel,” explains Kelley. Frozen product moves through a different supply chain.

In 2013, U.S. imports of frozen mahimahi from Vietnam totaled 612,000 pounds. Although Asia has presented some quality problems previously, there is a new level of sophistication among Vietnamese producers “with higher expectations for quality than in the past,” he says. 

Taiwan is another outlet, says Walsh, but the product is skin-on vs. skinless and comes in 50-pound packs. 

“We have several retailers that won’t take Taiwanese fish,” says Walsh, who adds that Orca Bay does third-party testing so customers can ensure they are getting the product they agreed to buy. 

South American producers are also seeking sustainability credentials for their fisheries in the form of a fishery improvement project (FIP); there is one for Ecuadoran mahimahi. “In lieu of [Marine Stewardship Council], people will look for a FIP,” says Walsh.

The Taiwanese fishery has no such project or MSC certification underway, but if it wants to remain a player in the market, Walsh predicts it will have to move in that direction.

In addition to supply challenges, dealing with decomposition is the other big issue with mahimahi, which is a scombrotoxin-forming species if handled or stored improperly. The Food and Drug Administration has been looking more closely at product and rejections. A container can be rejected if two of 18 samples show decomposition, adds Walsh.

The problem often originates in the receiving process when plants get the fish, he says, so Orca Bay has brought on retired FDA sensory expert Jim Barnett to work with the plants to help them recognize the issue before the fish are processed.

Last year it was more of a problem in South America, he says, but prior to that it was an issue with product from Taiwan.

After a couple of rejections, a company can end up on an automatic detention list that requires closer inspections and the need for a HACCP plan that spells out corrective actions. 

Investing in value-added 

Don Riffle, executive VP of sales and marketing for Clear Springs Foods, a producer of value-added retail mahimahi items in Buhl, Idaho, refers to mahi as a “nice part of our product line and a consistent performer for us.”

Riffle says sales from September through March increased by “a nice percentage,” and  helped cement the decision to introduce a new product this year.

Clear Springs already offered a macadamia coconut crusted mahi product, which sells well, and a Jamaican version. The latter, says Riffle, “is still in the line, but hasn’t shown the same growth, so that’s why we came up with another formula.”

The newest mahi product being rolled out is crunchy potato crusted.

Clear Springs sources its mahimahi from Ecuador, says Riffle, and so they have seen the supply issues and price increases, which do influence product sales.

As both a wholesaler and a retailer, Chris Arseneault, owner of Seafood@West Main in Charlottesville, Va., deals in mahimahi a couple of ways. On the wholesale side, he carries the product more regularly, supplying 4- to 6-ounce portions to “little taco places that use mahi as a selling point.”

Within his retail store, mahimahi isn’t a staple, but rather appears when he gets a strong recommendation on it from a trusted supplier. Arseneault recently featured mahi from Costa Rica at $14.95 a pound.

It appeals to customers who want something more flavorful than the typical mild white fish, he says, but are looking at a value that puts it at a price point below tuna.

He carries mahimahi most frequently in the summer, when he tries to get fresh product from the Gulf or East Coast.

Western Edge’s Kelley says the market for mahimahi is strengthening in the United States, though not significantly. Its staying power, he says, will be determined on the ability of the current inventory to meet demand until the next production cycle.

The fishery is also impacted by the La Niña and El Niño cycles, he adds, so it could get tighter or more abundant, depending on how those weather-related phenomena play out. “It’s an interesting species,” he sums up.

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

Find other SeaFood Business articles discussing mahimahi here.

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