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Product Spotlight: Opah

Chefs nationwide rave about moonfish

 - Photo by Laura Lee Dobson, courtesy Norpac Fisheries
By April Forristall
September 01, 2008

Fifteen or so years ago if an opah was cau g ht as bycatch it would have most likely been tossed overboard. The market for opah wasn't generated until the early 1990s, when the state of Hawaii challenged chefs to develop recipes for the underutilized fish. The fish slowly gained recognition for its rich, creamy flavor profile and earned a spot in the fine-dining niche nationwide.

Opah, or moonfish, is a bycatch of the longline tuna and swordfish fisheries and is harvested consistently in small quantities. The fish is highly marketable for its high quality red flesh, which is valued by the restaurant trade in Hawaii and the continental United States, especially for sushi. It does not have a strong presence in supermarkets because it is only affordable to retail markets for a few weeks a year. Dirk's Fish & Gourmet Shop in Chicago retailed opah for $24 in mid-August, and wholesaler Garden & Valley Isle Seafood in Honolulu had product for $5.95 during the same time period.

Significant opah landings weren't seen until around 2002, when they jumped from a 10-year average of about 1,500 pounds to just under 913,000 pounds, with all but about a tiny fraction coming from Hawaii, according to National Marine Fisheries Service data. Landings increased to just over 1 million pounds in 2003 and have remained at that level, with the exception of 2004, when regulations enacted to reduce bycatch of sea turtles minimized the harvest. The supply does not hurt opah's marketability, but rather is congruent with demand. "It's one of those things that's not a staple, so [when supply is low] we can sell something else and it's not a big deal," says Dirk Fucik, owner of Dirk's Fish.

"Because it is a specialty item, we don't have the type of demand for orders larger than 50 pounds," says William McCabe, president of Wild Ocean Seafoods in Ferndale, Wash. "If demand went up, there isn't going to be enough supply in Hawaii."

Opah is one of Garden & Valley Isle Seafood's main products. According to President Bob Fram, on an average day the company sells between 10 and 15 whole opah, at most 20 to 30 if supply is high.

When the Hawaii supply is low, imports from Fiji, Tahiti and New Zealand fill the pipeline. Mexico also exports opah to the U.S. market, but quality and handling concerns keep import numbers low. Hawaiian opah is also generally larger, averaging 100 to 140 pounds, while opah out of Fiji runs between 60 to 90 pounds.

"Supply is pretty consistent," says James Iacino, foodservice sales manager at Seattle Fish Co. in Denver. "It's price more than anything that will fluctuate."

While opah is available year-round, midsummer to early fall is peak season. For about four to six weeks, supply is "really abundant" says Fram. "When there's only one opah per every 1,000 hooks, the price stays pretty firm and expensive. When it becomes two or three then it becomes very cheap," says Fram.

In early August, premium-cut back loin was selling for $5.95 a pound, which is normal for the season. The yearly average for back loin is between $9.95 and $10.95.

Opah's low recovery rate also affects price. Due to the fish's peculiar anatomy, mainly the large, bulbous bone plate in its front belly, yield is only about 30 percent, and McCabe says once the center loins, which are the portions fine-dining restaurants demand, are removed, recovery is reduced even further.

"It keeps prices high on a fish that starts out low," says McCabe.

Suppliers don't have problems moving opah when it is available, and while they don't foresee it ever breaking out of its specialty niche, that suits the species perfectly.


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


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