« January 2009 Table of Contents
Top Species: Pollock/surimi
A second season of quota cuts hit pollock, surimi-seafood industry
By Joanne Friedrick
January 01, 2009
Pollock, that ubiquitous whitefish used in fast-food fish
sandwiches and as the base for surimi-seafood products, is
going to be a bit more scarce as Alaska quota levels drop for
the second straight year.
Based on recommendations from National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration scientists, the North Pacific
Fishery Management Council last month set the 2009 total
allowable catch at 815,000 metric tons, a 18.5 percent decrease
from 2008. The total allowable catch was set at 1 million
metric tons last year, which was down 28 percent from 2007 [see
Pat Shanahan, program director for the Genuine Alaska
Pollock Producers, a nonprofit trade group of 14 companies that
promotes domestic Alaska pollock, says the reduction in the
quota was not unexpected. "We as an industry subscribe to these
scientific findings," she says. "This was all expected and
planned for in advance."
The good news, says Shanahan, is that the same studies that
were used to set the lower catch numbers are also showing a
surge in stock levels for 2010. "The science indicates an
upswing in fish in the ocean due to a strong year class of
pollock that will mature in 2009," she adds.
According to NOAA, a 2008 survey combining information from
acoustic measurements of pollock biomass and mid-water trawl
results showed lower abundance. Based on these results, NOAA
recommended to the NPFMC that the catch limit be lowered. But
Jim Ianelli, a stock assessment scientist at NOAA, said in a
prepared statement "the prognosis for 2010 is for improved
stock levels because 2006 was a more successful year for the
hatching and survival of young pollock."
Alaska pollock ( Theragra chalcogramma ) is harvested by
trawlers in the Bering Sea in January and September and in the
Gulf of Alaska in January, June and September. Since 2005, the
Marine Stewardship Council has certified Alaska pollock as
sustainable and well managed.
Pollock prices increased from an average of $1.25 to $1.35
per pound for fillet blocks in December 2007, to about $1.65
per pound at the start of 2008. Rick Muir, president of GAPP
and VP at American Seafoods Group in Seattle says the fillet
block price remained steady at $1.90 to $1.95 per pound at
press time in mid-December.
"That price will probably continue," says Muir, "but there
are so many changes to consider." He notes that pollock hasn't
yet experienced the price reductions from the recession
experienced by some of the high-end species.
"Pollock is a recession-resistant species," says Merle
Knapp, VP of sales and marketing at Glacier Fish Co. in
While halibut, cod, sole and flounder have dominated the top
and middle tiers in the market, pollock has weathered the
economic storm by serving lower-tier buyers, who use the mild
whitefish as the base for quick serve restaurant (QSR) fish
sandwiches and fish 'n chips, or as the main ingredient in
surimi seafood. Knapp predicts pollock prices will stay where
they are or increase slightly. Supply and demand is the biggest
factor in the price equation, says Knapp, despite the
volatility of the economy.
"Fuel has been a killer, but we are seeing [oil] barrel
prices coming down," says Knapp. He notes that producers have
had to absorb a lot of these extra costs, "so we are just
relieved to see some of the downturn in oil prices."
Knapp says in distinguishing itself from similar species,
pollock benefits from its Marine Stewardship Council
certification, especially among European customers.
"It's important to them to know they have third-party
certification," says Knapp.
In addition, says Knapp, the state of Alaska has required
that pollock be fished sustainably for some time, although it
has just recently begun marketing that fact.
While pollock has competed with cod for a prime position as
the fish of choice in breaded entrées and sandwiches, Shanahan
says GAPP has been working hard to create a real identity for
pollock. One of the opportunities, she says, has been within
school lunch programs, where pollock is being introduced to
students as a source of high-quality protein that is exciting
In the works for three years now, Shanahan says the GAPP
School Nutrition Program has introduced pollock to students via
Alaska Fish Tacos and other menu items. Student feedback showed
92 percent of elementary students wanted Alaska Fish Tacos
served in their cafeteria. At the secondary level, 76 percent
said "yes" and an additional 16 percent said "maybe," when
asked if they would like to have Alaska Fish Tacos on their
school lunch menu.
Both Muir and Knapp say this year's catch has been primarily
split evenly between sales of fillets, which are used to create
items such as the fish tacos, and surimi, although Knapp says
that can fluctuate based on the fishing season or because of
"Different product forms will shift to meet the demand,"
Knapp says, noting "right now, Japan is the king of currency,
so they are dictating the business."
Japan and Europe are big markets for surimi seafood, says
Shanahan, and those areas have been innovators in its use and
in the creation of new forms. That contrasts with the United
States, where surimi is best known as a crab-flavored seafood
used in salads, she says.
The Japanese per-capita surimi-seafood consumption rate is
about 15 pounds per year, according to industry statistics,
with the most common form being kamaboko, a traditional steamed
and pressed fish sausage. But the Japanese market sells
hundreds of products made from surimi.
At Shining Ocean, a Sumner, Wash.-based surimi-seafood
producer, President Robert Bleu says even though it has been a
good year for the company, "it's still a tough environment."
Nielsen surimi data show supermarket sales dollars are up
slightly, about 1 percent to 2 percent, but actually poundage
is down percentage-wise "in the high teens," he says.
Bleu says both restaurants and supermarket retailers are
experiencing a tightening of the market because of the
"You worry about your customers and if they go out [of
business], will you take a big hit?" he says. On the plus side,
he says, natural gas and other energy costs have fallen as the
year has gone on, as have the costs of some of the ingredients
in surimi, such as starches. "It's much better than earlier in
the year, when we saw big increases [of 100 percent or more] in
the cost of supplies."
Shining Ocean has positioned
itself as a health leader with
surimi, he says, touting products that are enhanced with
omega-3 fatty acids. One of the company's newest retail
products is an 8-ounce Crab Smart Natural, which is colored
using antioxidant-rich lycopene, found in tomatoes, and
enhanced with 250 mg of omega-3s.
"Shining Ocean has been strong because we have a few pillars
of value-added," he says. In addition, he says, R&D dollars
are being focused on both new products and ways to produce
existing items more efficiently and cost-effectively, so those
savings can be passed along to customers. In some cases that
means substituting other species for pollock or whiting if the
price is more attractive, says Bleu.
Glacier Fish has looked to whiting as a fill-in if there is
a pollock shortfall, says Knapp. Whiting is caught by the same
fleets that fish for pollock, and is undergoing the process of
getting MSC certified by early 2009, he says.
"There's never enough to go around," says Knapp about the
pollock supply. "Every year we run out."
In the foodservice arena, some restaurants are having a hard
time sourcing pollock and that has impacted menus.
Joey's Only Seafood Restaurants, the 80-unit Canadian QSR
headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, garners about 30 percent to
35 percent of its sales from pollock fish 'n chips, and another
15 percent to 20 percent from fish 'n chips made with other
But Andy Taylor, senior VP at Joey's, says as the price of
pollock nears that of higher-priced species such as cod,
haddock and halibut, some customers are upgrading. For a couple
of dollars difference, he says, diners will opt for cod fish 'n
chips instead of the pollock version.
"Pollock has been harder to come by at a good price," he
says, "which forces us to increase our menu price."
Taylor says the higher pollock price may affect its
popularity with diners, but that type of change seems to be
He is encouraged that the pollcock supply is likely to
increase again once the quota is revisited for the 2010 fishing
Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in South