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Top 10 Species: Flatfish

Demand for value-added halibut, flounder, sole on the rise

 - Photo courtesy of Virginia Marine Products
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 China.

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 healthy biomass.

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.


Adding value

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 Roasted Vegetables.

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, Hartley's CEO.

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 says.

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, boneless fillets.

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 overseas.

"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 pretty happy."

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 species.

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 noted.

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.


Summer blues

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 pounds.

"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 News.

"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 Farm Fresh.

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.


Farming flatfish

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 five years."

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, Maine


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