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One Man's Opinion: A healthy fish appetite?

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

Last month fishcrats in Washington, D.C., finally released their annual "Fisheries of the United States" report. Since it's 2007, one would think the report would be for 2006, but it's actually for 2005. Not that long ago, it took the feds six months or so to compile the data, but now it takes more than a year. These days the feds obviously have higher priorities than timely fish stats.

The most closely watched of the myriad numbers in the report is per capita fish consumption, one of the better yardsticks the seafood industry measures itself by. In recent years, the seafood industry has been doing a pretty good job. From 2001 to 2004, per capita seafood consumption rose from 14.8 pounds to 16.6 pounds, an increase of 12 percent. In 2005, though, the industry took a step backwards, as consumption slipped 2 percent to 16.2 pounds.

So what caused the dip?

One reason was our declining appetite for canned tuna. In 2005, Americans ate 3.1 pounds of canned tuna, down from 3.3 pounds in 2004. Considering all the negative fallout from story after story on methylmercury and tuna in recent years, this decline is not surprising.

We also ate a bit less shrimp in 2005, as consumption slipped from the record of 4.2 pounds, which was set in 2004, to 4.1 pounds. One reason for the decline may have been the increase in shrimp prices in 2005, which saw average wholesale prices rise about 6 percent over 2004.

In spite of the dip in 2005, the long-term outlook for fish consumption in the United States remains relatively bright, although there are a few caveats.

First, the demographics of the aging U.S. population are working in the seafood industry's favor. As Americans get older, research has shown they eat more seafood. That means the big baby boom generation, whose ages currently ranges from 43 to 61 years, will be in their peak seafood consumption years for some time.

Second, continued growth in aquaculture production from developing countries means there will be a growing supply of relatively low-priced seafood. Shrimp imports, for example, jumped 12 percent in 2006, to 1.3 billion pounds. Despite an antidumping tariff on some of the biggest producers, shrimp prices remain very attractive to consumers.

Salmon and tilapia imports also continue to grow. In the case of salmon, imports of farmed Atlantics have increased, albeit at a much slower rate. In 2006, U.S. farmed salmon imports were 435 million pounds. Now that salmon prices have recovered and farmers are enjoying very healthy margins, look for another spike in imports within the next year or two.

Tilapia imports, on the other hand, are still growing at a good clip (17 percent in 2006) and prices are steady at relatively reasonable levels.

On the negative side of seafood consumption, the prices for most wild species, many of which are already at high levels, will likely continue to rise over the long term and will dampen consumption.

Americans are likely to continue to eat more seafood. The challenge facing the seafood industry is how to make decent money selling it to them.

 

Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle

 

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