« March 2007 Table of Contents
Top 10 Species: Flatfish
Demand for value-added halibut, flounder, sole on the rise
By Rick Ramseyer
March 01, 2007
Pacific halibut. Yellowfin sole. Yellowtail flounder. These
are among the most commercially significant species under the
broad flatfish banner.
And with harvest restrictions tightening availability -
quotas are down for summer flounder (fluke) and Pacific
halibut, for example - U.S. seafood buyers are seeing demand
strengthening for fresh and frozen flatfish in retail and
restaurant settings across the country. Further, industry
stakeholders are striving to spark sales with new value-added
products, region-specific marketing initiatives and, in some
instances, more ship-
ments to secondary processors in
Front and center in most any flatfish discussion is Pacific
halibut, a prized whitefish with a mild, sweet flavor. The
largest of all flatfish, halibut can reach 8 feet long, 4 feet
across and top 600 pounds, albeit market sizes range from 10 to
200 pounds. (Halibut are among roughly 540 flatfish species in
the taxonomic order Pleuronectiformes, meaning "sideswimmer."
After starting life as normal fish, they become
bottom-dwellers, with both eyes on one side of the head.)
Alaska accounts for around 80 percent of North America's
halibut take. And though the fish comprised just 1 percent of
the state's total seafood volume in 2006, it represented 15
percent of statewide ex-vessel value.
"It's a premium product for our industry," says Laura
Fleming, communications director for the Alaska Seafood
Marketing Institute in Juneau.
The bulk of Alaska's halibut catch is sold fresh. Pacific
halibut has been harvested under a quota system since 1995,
allowing fishermen to fish for nine months - a dramatic change
from the pre-quota, derby-style fishery that limited the season
to a few frenzied days and resulted in up to 80 percent of the
catch being frozen.
Last fall, halibut was referenced in one of the three
ASMI-funded TV ads that aired on The Food Network. The spots
showed actor and comedian Ben Stein on a wooden raft in
Blackstone Bay, drolly touting wild Alaska seafood.
ASMI also continues to run consumer ads in magazines such as
Cooking Light and Bon Appétit that showcase celebrity chefs
cooking with Alaska seafood. One of the featured recipes is
Classic Alaska Halibut Ceviche by Rick Bayless of the Frontera
Grill in Chicago.
The International Pacific Halibut Commission regulates the
harvest for Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and British
Columbia. The 2007 commercial fishery kicked off March 10, five
days later than last year, and runs through mid-November. The
total allowable catch is 65.17 million pounds, down from 69.86
million pounds last year, as the IPHC attempts to maintain a
Alaska's share is capped at 52.36 million pounds, a decline
of 3 million pounds from 2006. That drop likely will keep
prices high; following a similar harvest reduction last year,
ex-vessel prices for halibut in major ports ran from $3-plus to
$4 or so a pound.
A month and a half ago, prices for frozen whole halibut were
$5.40 to $5.50 for 10-20s, $5.85 to $5.95 for 20-40s, $6.05 to
$6.20 for 40-60s and 60-80s, and $6 to $6.15 for 80s-and-up,
according to Urner Barry Publications in Toms River, N.J.
Pacific halibut additionally is the focus of several new
value-added products. Hartley's Northwest Seafoods, a small
company in Woodland, Wash., is introducing a retail line of
frozen halibut in three varieties: Halibut with Smokey Blue
Cheese and Hazelnut Crust, which in January won the Alaska
Symphony of Seafood's People's Choice Award; Halibut with
Washington Apple Salsa; and Halibut with Mediterranean Fire
Priced $14.95 to $15.95, each 12-ounce package contains two
6-ounce portions of vacuum-sealed halibut in an oven-safe tray.
Consumers "have two cooking options: They can bake the halibut
in the tray or boil it in the bag," says Phil Schmidt,
For 2007, the company will use 600,000 to 700,000 pounds of
headed and gutted (H&G) halibut, mostly from Alaska, to
make 300,000 pounds of finished goods. By the end of March,
those items will be in about 400 grocery stores in the Pacific
Northwest, plus the Denver area and in Canada.
Other companies offer valued-added halibut as well. Trident
Seafoods in Seattle lists 20 halibut-based foodservice products
on its Web site, including various sizes of marinated fletches,
loin-cut steaks and battered PubHouse-brand fish.
"We're seeing some of our major producers trying to meet
demand for consistently portioned sizes," ASMI's Fleming
Halibut isn't the only Alaska flatfish being used for
valued-added fare. Fishery Products International in Danvers,
Mass., recently launched a three-item foodservice line of
pan-seared products that includes Alaska yellowfin sole, which
is abundant in the Bering Sea. The 5-ounce fillet, seasoned
with lemon pepper, is carried by broadline distributors.
"We're doing much more volume now in yellowfin," says Lou
Malaquias, FPI's senior manager of seafood procurement. "It has
a nice white fillet that flakes very well."
China and back
Exports of yellowfin sole, in fact, are soaring, especially
to China, where the fish is reprocessed into frozen skinless,
FPI buys somewhere between 10 million and 20 million pounds
of yellowfin sole per year, Malaquias estimates. "Ten years
ago, before China came on the scene, yellowtail flounder was
maybe 75 percent of the flatfish sold in the United States," he
says. "Now I would say it's 90 percent yellowfin sole."
From January through November of last year, U.S. exports of
all flatfish surpassed 209 million pounds, up from almost 179.4
million pounds in 2005. China alone received 83.7 million
pounds of frozen yellowfin sole, a dramatic jump from around 70
million pounds in 2005.
Though lots of that sole came back into the U.S. market,
it's in smaller amounts. Indeed, for the first 11 months of
2006, China shipped 22.53 million pounds of frozen sole fillets
to the United States, down from 31 million pounds in 2005 - an
indication that more China-processed fillets are staying
"Not only is a lot of it going to Europe, but there is large
consumption starting to increase in China itself," says
Malaquias, noting that prices for 3- and 4-ounce fillets were
$2.25 and $2.40 a pound, respectively, in early February.
Other well-known West Coast flatfish include Dover, English
and petrale sole. Brad Pettinger, an administrator for the
fishermen-funded Oregon Trawl Commission in Astoria, Ore., says
those stocks are doing well.
The West Coast Dover quota, for example, "doubled this year,
from 7,500 tons for the last seven or eight years, to 16,000
tons," Pettinger says. "If we got 10,000 or 11,000 tons, I'd be
In late January, prices for fresh Dover fillets were $3 to
$3.25, while English sole was $3.20 to $3.40 and petrale sole
was $4.25 to $4.50-plus, Urner Barry reported.
Most West Coast sole is sold fresh in regional supermarkets
and in restaurant chains such as McCormick & Schmick's and
McGrath's Fish House. "And I've seen Dover sole in stores like
Wal-Mart," Pettinger says.
East Coast catch
Yellowtail flounder, found in the northwest Atlantic from
Labrador south to the Chesapeake Bay, is another key flatfish
In Canada, FPI controls the vast majority of the yellowtail
quota, which it harvests from the Grand Banks off the coast of
Newfoundland. "This yields about 10 million pounds of fillets
that get processed into a pack mix of fresh and frozen
products," Manny Alves, FPI's manager of primary products
management, stated via e-mail.
The larger percentage of fillets is frozen and is sold
predominantly to foodservice as IQF fillets, shatterpacks and
cellos. Demand is robust, with fillet prices ranging from $3.45
to $4.10 for 4-ounce and 8-ounce fillets, respectively, Alves
All isn't rosy for FPI, however. During the second quarter
of 2006, government officials in Newfoundland and Labrador
alleged the company was sending yellowtail flounder to China
for processing without Canada's approval. "Management is
presently not able to assess or predict the scope or outcome of
these charges," FPI stated in a news release last November.
Yellowtail flounder is also the base for new foodservice
offerings from American Pride Seafoods, a subsidiary of
American Seafoods Group in Seattle. American Pride recently
introduced SeaSwirls, a five-item line of fish fillets filled
with signature seafood stuffings, including a Mini Flounder
Roll with Crab; and Flounder with Lobster Stuffing.
Landings of summer flounder (fluke), a flatfish staple along
the central and southern East Coast, have tightened in recent
years, with the 2007 commercial catch set at 10.26 million
"We lost another 6 million pounds of quota this year," says
Frank McLaughlin, general manager of Chesapeake Bay Packing in
Newport News, Va. "Also, because the scallop boats have been so
successful the last four years, most of the boats don't go
fishing for flatfish anymore.
"In days gone by, we [handled] as much as 2 million pounds,"
McLaughlin adds. "We'll probably do less than 75,000 pounds in
the spring season this year."
Summer flounder nonetheless remains one of the top three
Virginia seafood species, behind scallops and blue crab.
Flounder landings in 2005 totaled 4 million pounds, with a
dockside value of $4.7 million, says Shirley Estes, executive
director of the Virginia Marine Products Board in Newport
"Almost any upscale restaurant will have Virginia flounder
on its menu," says Estes, citing as examples the Fat Canary in
Williamsburg and 99 Main Restaurant in Newport News. Fluke,
too, is a popular choice in supermarkets such as Ukrops and
This year for the first time, the board is doing consumer
advertising in regional Virginia magazines. Each ad will
highlight a recipe, including flounder. The board also is
spending $18,000 on summertime billboard advertising.
"We're asking tourists and residents to [request] Virginia
seafood," Estes says.
In North Carolina, summer flounder landings dipped slightly
for 2005. But with more than 4 million pounds landed - valued
at nearly $7.5 million - fluke is still one of North Carolina's
top five species.
"The majority is shipped to northern markets," William
Small, seafood marketing supervisor for the state's Department
of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Raleigh, stated via
e-mail. And "demand has always outweighed our supply."
In late January, prices of fresh fluke fillets were $5.75 to
$6.25 for medium sizes and $6.50 to $7 for large sizes,
according to Urner Barry.
Farm-raised flatfish account for a tiny piece of the world
supply, but halibut in particular is gaining ground. Marine
Harvest, the world's largest aquaculture company, has
concentrated its halibut-farming operations in Norway, where it
raises white halibut, Hippoglossus hippoglossus.
"It's a niche product for sure," says Magnus Skretting,
Marine Harvest's managing director of coldwater marine species,
noting the company will yield 1,100 tons this year.
The biggest markets are in Europe, "but we discovered there
was [interest] in the United States when they stop fishing for
Pacific halibut from November to February," Skretting says.
In 2007, Marine Harvest will send 300 tons of fresh H&G
white halibut - priced $8.50 per pound - to white-tablecloth
restaurants and high-end retailers in Northeast cities such as
Boston and New York.
"In Europe, chefs prefer a 5-kilo halibut; to the United
States, we deliver 7-to-9 and 9-plus," Skretting adds. "So it's
a long production time. From hatch to harvest takes four to
All told, from Alaska to Canada and from Europe to Asia,
demand for flatfish remains strong.
Martin International in Boston, which sells seafood under
the Black Pearl brand, sources wild halibut from Alaska,
farm-raised halibut from Iceland and Shetland, and farmed
turbot from Iceland.
And though flatfish currently represents 5 percent of
business, the company's president, Dick Martin, sees global
potential for wild and farmed fish alike.
"If the wild side is managed properly, it should continue to
produce a nice, abundant supply of a high-end product that will
have a special place in the market," Martin says. "And with
more people on the planet, the farmed side should be able to
grow and grow."
Contributing Editor Rick Ramseyer lives in Cumberland,