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One Man's Opinion: Let the good times roll

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
By Peter Redmayne
April 01, 2007

The International Boston Seafood Show is a great opportunity to showcase the diversity of the fish business. Since it was first held 25 years ago, the show has mushroomed from 200 to more than 1,700 booths. In the early years, the show was largely local and English, usually spoken with a distinctive New England twang, the lingua franca.

While English remains the dominant language, today you are just as likely to hear a Mandarin accent as one from Maine, as exhibitors and visitors come from almost 40 countries.

Having attended the show since its inception, I have found it to be a good barometer of the industry's mood. Of course, trade shows always have an aura of artificial euphoria. ("Give me a call next week and I'll place a big order.") Still, I would say the mood of most of the exhibitors at this year's show was the most ebullient I have ever observed.

Although it's always dangerous to make sweeping generalizations in such a fragmented, global industry, for most people selling seafood these days business is very, very good. And why is that? In a word: demand.

People want to eat more fish, not just in the United States, but around the world. Aging baby boomers, who are in their peak seafood consumption years, are one of the dominant factors driving demand. That has made seafood a seller's market for a lot of producers. Take salmon. It wasn't that long ago that the financial fate of Alaska salmon packers was a function of whether or not the Japanese had an appetite for their sockeyes. These days, if the Japanese want sockeyes they have to get in line and compete with Europeans, Americans and Chinese (see Market Report, p. 20).

Salmon farmers are also in the catbird's seat. Flush after several years with fat margins, the farmed salmon industry has finally learned their lesson and resisted the temptation to farm fish faster then they can find new markets. "We're happy with 10 percent growth a year," says Rodrigo Infante, head of the Chilean Salmon Farmer's Association. "We know that works for everybody."

Tuna, crab, halibut, cod, basa, squid - name a seafood and there's a good chance supplies are short of demand and prices are at, or near, record levels. No wonder there were so many smiles on the faces of exhibitors at Boston.

But if you looked under the sea of smiles, you could find a few frowns at the show. There's little doubt that high (some would say outrageous) prices are extracting a toll on some segments of the industry. Stop & Shop, for example, has plans to close half of its full-service seafood counters this year. High seafood prices have slowed sales to the point where more 
and more service counters are losing money. With little relief in sight, more supermarkets will follow suit.

The fallout from the foodservice side has yet to be felt, but no doubt there will be some impact. After all, how many restaurants can get away with charging $25 for a halibut dinner?

In a business as diverse as seafood there will always be winners and losers. And this year's show in Boston was a great chance to enjoy some very good times.

 

Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle

 

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