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Product Spotlight: Mackerel

Weak runs, strong overseas demand hurt mackerel imports

 - Photo courtesy of Ducktrap River Fish Farm
By April Forristall
December 01, 2008

Despite being considered one of the most healthful fish species due to its high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, mackerel remains an underutilized species in the United States.

Most suppliers sell mackerel only as bait fish. Richard Penfold, manager of Stonington Sea Products in Stonington, Maine, says processors' inability to properly cut the fish - which has to be shipped whole due to rapid oxidization - as well as mackerel's flavor profile, are factors.

"The audience [for mackerel] is a specialized audience," says Penfold. "It's one of those products - people either love it or they hate it. A lot of people think it's too strong and they won't eat it."

Don Cynewski, seafood buyer at Ducktrap River of Maine, agrees. "It's a fish lovers fish," says Cynewski. "It's very oily, rich and flavorful."

Mackerel's oil content makes it perfect for smoking, which is how both Stonington and Ducktrap process the fish.

Available year round with fisheries in Canada, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, mackerel is best from September to October when the fish have built up enough fat to get them through the winter.

While not a huge seller for either company, both Stonington and Ducktrap say mackerel sales are steady, with no major peaks and valleys. The past couple of years, however, supply has been spotty.

Chicken of the Sea's canned mackerel product sales are also flat, resting at $7 million annually, according to John Sawyer, senior VP of sales and marketing.

Always a popular fish in Asia, mackerel's inexpensive price - usually around $1 per pound, and in the mid- to high- $1 range for retail products - combined with the economic downturn make the species a hot commodity.

Exports of fresh mackerel to China totaled nearly 700,000 pounds through September - up from only 58,000 pounds during the same period last year, 
according to National Marine Fisheries Service data.

"Over the last three or four years supply has been steady, but demand from Asian countries, mainly China, has escalated rapidly," says Cynewski, who adds that Canada's mackerel runs in the past two or three years have been down.

"Last year was a poor year with low mackerel landings off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland," says Penfold, adding that landings there this year are down about two-thirds from last year.

NMFS data shows imports from Canada through September have fallen by about 50,000 pounds compared to 2007.

Chicken of the Sea sourced its product from South America until June, but changing ocean conditions have dropped imports from the area by more than 10,000 pounds from last year.

That, coupled with the surge in demand overseas, have driven mackerel prices to the mid-$2 range - more than double compared with the winter of 2005-06.

While it may not be the biggest seller for the companies that carry it, mackerel does have a strong following, mainly from consumers who consider it to be traditional, cultural cuisine. If the industry can begin to educate buyers more about the healthfulness, low price and versatility, mackerel could grow to be a more appreciated fish.

 

Editorial Assistant April Forristall can be e-mailed at aforristall@divcom.com

 

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