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Yellowfin tuna

Demand remains strong, but the uncertainty of Mother Nature and increased fuel costs make pricing unpredictable

Despite rising prices for yellowfin, growing demand is
    a challenge for suppliers. - Photo courtesy of Twin Tails Seafood
By Marianne Deward
November 01, 2006

Despite continued weather disruptions and increased fuel prices worldwide, the yellowfin tuna market remained relatively steady throughout 2006. Next year may be harder to predict, however.

U.S. yellowfin imports for the first six months of 2006 were at 14,342 metric tons, up slightly from 14,095 metric tons during the same period in 2005. The 23,066 metric tons imported in 2005 was up a bit from 2004's total of 21,412 metric tons.

Some of the largest producers are Vietnam, the Philippines, Thai­land, Indonesia, Mexico, Venezuela, Ecua­dor, Costa Rica, Panama, Colom­bia, Spain and Italy.

While many factors can affect pricing, weather has always played a big role; major storms send boats in, and good weather keeps them out. Water temperature also has an effect on landings. For the U.S. Gulf fleet, 2006 has been a year of picking up the pieces after 2005's hurricanes wreaked havoc with the fishery.

"Almost 90 percent of the Gulf fleet was immobilized after hurricanes Katrina and Rita," says Phil Rush, VP of sales for Jensen Tuna in Louisiana. "Many workers lived on their boats, because their homes were destroyed, while others couldn't work because they were dealing with insurance and clean-up logistics. There were four to six months with no fishing.

"Only since this July has our production level of yellowfin gotten back to normal. Barring any more major storms, 2007 should be a better year."

Following Hurricane Katrina, Rush resorted to importing 70 to 80 percent of his fresh tuna from Vietnam to fill the void."That's now swinging back to a normal level," he says. "We're getting closer to importing only 60 percent from Vietnam during the peak season and getting the rest from the Gulf."

Fresh and frozen yellowfin is available year-round due to differing seasons worldwide. For example, the peak season for fresh tuna from Vietnam is typically September through March, whereas Panama's peak is January through July.

Given all the variables, knowing exactly when and where to buy yellowfin is a challenge, says Tim Lycke, president of Incredible Fresh in Miami, which attributes approximately 35 percent of its business to fresh yellowfin.

"We moved a lot of tuna this year, and sometimes we just couldn't get enough," says Lycke. "This year yellow­fin was one of our better money makers, with eight out of 10 of our customers ordering it. Knowing the seasons, and how weather and fuel are effecting those seasons, is critical."

Pricing woes

With fresh tuna, the bigger the fish, the higher the price. For 60-pounders and up, prices were down a bit from last year's range of $7.75 to $8, going from a low of $5.75 up to a high of $7.25 this year. The 2+ grade held at $5 to $5.50. Prices for 40-60-pound fish remained at $4.75.

As fuel costs rose and fell in 2006, so did yellowfin tuna prices.

"Prices [for fresh tuna] are very much like a roller coaster," says Lycke. "Though it's come down a bit from last year, I can't see the price of yellowfin dropping under $4 next year."

"When it comes to prices, there are too many variables, which is why it's so hard to forecast for 2007," adds Rush. "Our costs have doubled or tripled in the past six years because of higher transportation costs. Often, countries that ship No. 1 or No. 2+ grade fresh yellowfin have to find a closer market, like Japan, because of high fuel costs. I'm hoping for price stability in 2007, but we have to keep an eye on the fuel costs."

Chef Dean James Max, a Fort Lau­derdale chef who sits on the Florida Seafood and Aquaculture Advisory Committee, deals regularly with yellowfin-price fluctuations.

"Since costs can be high, we use every piece of fresh tuna," he says. "Our menu changes daily, so if something becomes cost prohibitive, we switch to another item. But yellowfin will always stay a very popular and strong menu item."

Frozen yellowfin also saw some price hikes. Steve Clark, national sales manager for Twin Tails Seafood in Miami, which sells CO-treated yellowfin from the Philippines, experienced a 15- to 20-percent price increase this year, due primarily to a dramatic increase in both demand and transportation costs.

Others saw prices go even higher. David Chi, marketing manager at Ocean Blue Products, a Los Angeles seafood importer that primarily deals with frozen CO-treated yellowfin from Indonesia and Vietnam, says earlier
in the year prices were up 30 to 40 
percent.

"I think prices will remain high in the first part of 2007," says Chi. "Demand will continue to rise, and pricing will also if weather and fuel-cost instability continue to affect the market. I don't foresee any major dips."

Meeting high demand

Prices haven't dampened consumer demand for yellowfin.

"Yellowfin has become such a popular species that our challenge for 2007 will be to keep meeting demand," says Clark. That's why Twin Tails will soon be importing from Papua New Gui­nea. "It's a tuna-rich area. Boats in the Philippines take five to seven days to get to the fishing grounds, four to five days to fish, and five to seven days to return.

"In New Guinea, it takes less than one day to and from the fishing area, and two days to catch. We'll get a good-quality product to meet our customers' needs."

Many suppliers are selling frozen yellowfin saku blocks, which is tuna from the top loin cut into 8-ounce blocks suitable for sushi/sashimi.

"Most upscale restaurants still only use fresh tuna; however, sushi bars and other restaurants are going more with frozen saku lately because it's less expensive, since there are no filleting costs," says Rush.

"I think the use of increased saku blocks may affect the fresh market next year."

Yellowfin is often compared to top sirloin, another high-end menu item, so it's no wonder consumption of the popular tuna continues to rise worldwide. Japan, Western Europe and the United States are the top three global markets driving demand.

High-quality yellowfin is the norm, but buyers should make sure the tuna is always firm, bright and somewhat translucent.

"The skin should be well attached to the flesh, with only fresh blood and tissue visible," he says. "Browning edges denote staleness and aging. Also, don't let tunas lie in ice baths. They require a consistent temperature and should be kept dry."

For the freshest yellowfin, Lycke looks to the moon phases. "Buyers should ask how long the boat was out and on what moon phase the yellowfin was caught." he says. "The freshest fish are always caught just before a full moon during the first half."

Marianne Deward is a freelance writer in Sunrise, Fla.

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