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Product Spotlight: Mahimahi

Consistent supply makes mahi a restaurant staple

 - Photo courtesy of Florida Bureau of Seafood and
    Aquaculture Marketing
By April Forristall
May 01, 2008

During times when consumers and industry professionals alike are bombarded with news of how the oceans' fish supply is being depleted, supplying mahimahi is one decision that allows companies to rest easy. Mahimahi is one of the most plentiful species in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, one that isn't on conservation groups' "high alert" or "red" list and hasn't been pegged with bad methylmercury PR. Still considered somewhat exotic by consumers, mahimahi, also known as dorado or dolphin fish, is now commonplace on most restaurant menus, holding its own among species like salmon and tilapia.

Mahi is available through both domestic and imported sources, with the latter bringing in the majority of the supply. Approximately 80 percent of the mahi supply is from the Pacific and the rest domestic product, says Tim Lycke, general manager of Incredible Fish in Miami.

Last year, mahi imports totaled more than 35 million pounds. This year, imports through February are at almost 13 million pounds, 4 million more than the same period last year, according to National Marine Fisheries Service statistics. In 2006, domestic landings were just over 2 million pounds.

Ocean Technology in Glen Burnie, Md., began carrying mahi just three years ago and already sells nearly 1 million pounds annually.

"Demand has been fantastic," says President Bob Stryker.

The same goes further down the coast at Incredible Fish. Lycke says mahi boasts the largest production of fresh fish for the company and he sees its popularity increasing annually.

Demand for mahi has grown steadily since it entered the restaurant scene, and its significant rise in popularity shows no signs of slowing, say producers.

"It's got commonplace status. It's a staple fish on a lot of restaurant menus now, because it's been readily available," says Stryker. "It's a commodity that's pretty much driven by pricing and availability."

"It's actually a very prolific species. It's one of the fastest growing fish in the ocean," says Henry Lovejoy, president of EcoFish in Dover, N.H. "It can gain 10 percent of its body weight in one day. They are voracious eaters and can withstand a lot more fishing pressure than other species like shark or swordfish."

Landings are holding steady from year to year, with volumes taking a dip when the Pacific season ends around May and Atlantic production gears up a few months later, but there is always plenty of frozen fish to get suppliers through the supply lulls.

"It's a plentiful fish," says Lycke. "Price-wise compared to grouper and snapper it usually tends to be a lot cheaper and at the source level there is much more production."

Price fluctuates during the off-season, but usually no more than a quarter a pound, according to Lycke, whose company sells about 20,000 pounds weekly.

"It's common sense that if grouper is on the menu at $20 and right below it is mahi for $14, people are going to try it," he says. "It's a more interesting fish to try."

When served at Fore Street in Portland, Maine, Chef Sam Hayward says it sells anywhere between 20 to 40 portions on a night of 150 to 300 covers. "Considering the size of our menu, that's pretty good," Hayward says.

Sampling the species in restaurants gives consumers the faith they need to test it at home.

"Like in so many cases, the culinary world takes the lead on a species and as people become familiar with it on menus, then they start using it at home," says Lycke. "And there are so many different ways of cooking it. It can be grilled, baked, fried, sautéed - there is all kinds of stuff to do with mahi."

But that's not to say mahi doesn't have its hurdles.

"The biggest challenge recently with mahi is the price is up this year," says EcoFish's Lovejoy.

However, the weather, not overfishing, is at fault. El Nino's absence held water temperatures down and slowed growth rates, according to Lovejoy, forcing an increased amount of smaller than usual mahi to be caught.

"[The price is] no where near where halibut got," says Lovejoy, comparing mahi to the species his company dropped when costs got too high. "I don't see mahi going in that direction."

 

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

 

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