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Top Species: Halibut

Successful fishery management bodes well for supply

By Joanne Friedrick
September 01, 2010

Versatile, adaptable and available year-round thanks to its extended fishing season, halibut is a frequent choice among consumers and restaurateurs alike.

"The texture and flavor profile appeals to a lot of people," explains Claudia Hogue, foodservice marketing director at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Hogue, who is based in ASMI's Seattle office, says halibut is a top choice among chefs because the fish "stands up well to different cooking options and adapts to different flavor profiles."

As a result, she says, many restaurants and other foodservice operations are menuing halibut.

"Our goal at ASMI is to get the product called out as Alaskan," she says.

The Pacific halibut season runs from February through November, and chefs often mark the season's summer peak with in-store events. Market Broiler, a five-unit chain of casual-dining restaurants in California, promoted a combo special entrée of halibut and scallops for $23.95 in May and through mid-summer, says Lenore Vlasic, chief marketing officer for the Riverside, Calif.-based company.

"This was the first time in three years that we went after a gourmet-type item" rather than a value-oriented special, she explains. Pan-seared halibut appears on Market Broiler's menu regularly, as do halibut brochette and halibut Oscar - a version with asparagus and a lobster cream sauce. But it was the combo special that was an exceptionally successful draw, with each location selling about 40 orders per day, she says. Market Broiler supported the event with advertising, including billboards, newspaper ads, parking-lot banners and e-mail, Facebook and 
Twitter messages.

Halibut has broad appeal with Market Broiler's diners, she says. "We consider it beginner's seafood," she says, because of its mild flavor and firm texture. Scallops are also popular with customers who aren't particularly adventurous when it comes to seafood, she adds, so combining the two made sense. In May alone the chain used more than 10,000 pounds of halibut.

For the past five years, Willy Beaudry, executive chef at The Crest Hotel in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, has held a halibut festival at the venue's Waterfront Restaurant. The fish is the focal point on both the lunch and dinner menus, with offerings such as halibut cakes served with ginger zucchini marmalade, filet stuffed with local prawns in a lobster sauce and his version of fish and chips featuring potato-chip crusted halibut. The regular menu also offers halibut cheeks topped with mustard and caper berry sauce and a salad of grilled asiago-crusted halibut with fresh berries, tomatoes, greens and a citrus vinaigrette.

Recreational halibut fishing charters are a big draw for Prince Rupert, "so it ties in nicely with our restaurant and the area," says Beaudry. He also likes to work with halibut because it's appropriate for many applications, including frying, grilling and roasting. It's actually less limiting than red meat, he says, and halibut versus other fish is economical for a chef because it has a high meat yield.

While prices are at the high end of his menu at $25 to $29 per entrée, Beaudry says diners don't mind paying a premium for fresh, local fish. "I market it like beef tenderloin," he points out. "It's a very valuable product, so you have to treat it like a high-grade commodity. Halibut is just a fun thing to have in the kitchen."

The wild and sustainable message that the halibut industry is using resonates with college and university foodservice providers, says ASMI's Hogue. The University of Massachusetts-
Amherst recently conducted an Alaska Seafood Week and used halibut on the menu at one of four dining halls, says Martha Monaghan, the college's special-events manager.

The event is tied in with speakers, who talk about sustainable seafood and the fishing experience. There's even a fresh seafood display so students get to see what they are eating, she says.

Halibut has been a well-managed species for decades, says Peggy Parker, executive director at the Halibut Association of North America. Using information on stocks from Alaska to Oregon and input from harvesters and processors as well, quotas are released each year. And although the industry has seen a decline in quota totals for several years running, says Parker, the commercial fleet hasn't exceeded the catch limit.

The halibut quota hit a peak of 62 million pounds in 2003, according to the Seafood Market Bulletin (a service of ASMI), and has declined to 42 million pounds for 2010.

As the science for determining the quotas improves, says Parker, it becomes more difficult for the industry to question those numbers. In the past few years, she says, scientists began gathering data from tags placed on halibut that measure where the fish travel. And the results show a greater percentage of stocks are migratory than was previously thought.

That discovery has impacted the quotas, she says, which have designated harvest areas. Certain sectors in Washington, British Columbia and Alaska were affected by this change, she says, with quotas lowered by as much as 40 percent.

Fish size has also changed over the years, says Parker. Where once a 20-year-old halibut could top out at 200-plus pounds, today a fish of the same age is likely to be about 50 pounds. Parker attributes the difference to other fish, such as the arrowtooth flounder, competing for food.

Even though the Pacific halibut quota is lower, Parker says prices have remained steady. Ex-vessel prices have stayed around $5 a pound, according to the Seafood Market Bulletin.

On the East Coast, the bulk of the halibut comes from Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. In 2009, the U.S. imported about 2.54 million pounds of fresh and frozen Atlantic halibut from Canada. In 2008, domestic 
Atlantic halibut landings were just shy of 60,000 pounds, with 46,288 coming from Maine and the remainder from Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Geoffrey Moulton, executive director at Lewis Mills & Co., a seafood importer and distributor in Gloucester, Mass., says the resource is improving and customers are responding by asking for East Coast halibut.

Prices are high, around $7.75 per pound for day-boat halibut, says Moulton. About 75 percent of his business is 10- to 50-pound fish, with larger sizes filling the gaps.

"Demand is ahead of supply at this point," he says, which isn't the case for most other species whose demand he labels "dull." Growing up in New England, Moulton says East Coast halibut is achieving a level of sustainability that rivals what has happened in the Pacific.

"It's one more success story," says Moulton.

In comparing Atlantic and Pacific halibut, Moulton says there isn't much taste difference. "It about perception," he says. Most Atlantic halibut stays in East Coast markets, he notes, although he does service some customers in the Midwest. "There's not enough East Coast fish to go West," he says.

Looking ahead, Moulton says, "Every year we look for small improvements [in the halibut supply] and we pray that good fishery management continues."


Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine


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