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Top Species: Pollock/surimi

Pollock weathers low quotas, and now business is looking up

Surimi prices climbed in 2010, which saw the lowest
    pollock quota in 32 years. - Photo courtesy of Shining Ocean
By Joanne Friedrick
November 01, 2010

After coping with two years of quota cuts, the pollock industry is hoping to regain some ground with improved harvest levels in 2011.

Although a quota won't be set until late in the year, Marc Wells, president of Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers and VP-sales for Arctic Storm Management Group in Seattle, says the smaller fish in this year's catch are a good indication that there's a large and healthy biomass in the Bering Sea.

"Fishing took a little longer this year," he says, in large part because fishermen were avoiding the smaller fish. Prices settled to a reasonable level over last year, with fillet blocks selling for $3,800 to $3,900 per ton, and minced around $2,300 per ton, says Wells.

Both Wells and GAPP 
Program Director Pat Shanahan say it's too soon to speculate on next year's quota, "but federal scientists report their surveys appear good and [the quota] should be up," notes Shanahan.

She adds that pollock is one of the most studied seafood species and is considered a model fishery when it comes to sustainability. That's important in the United States, but especially significant among European buyers, says Wells, where most manufacturers have sustainability guidelines in place.

Because this year's quota was the lowest in 32 years at 813 metric tons and demand hasn't slowed, prices have risen, says John van Amerongen, director of marketing and communications at Trident Seafoods in Seattle. "Less pollock up the ramp means fewer fillets and higher prices for the finished product," he says. "But pollock is still a great whitefish, and frankly we wish we had more of it."

Still, says van Amerongen, the pollock quotas are neither "Draconian nor unnecessary. We're actually very fortunate that we monitor the stocks as closely as we do and that as an industry we have the capacity to respond to resource fluctuations in a timely fashion. That's the beauty of fish management in the North Pacific."

Like Shanahan and Wells, van Amerongen is betting on quotas to head back up for 2011.

 

Surimi and beyond

In the meantime, Trident is maximizing its usage of every fish, producing IQF fillets, fillet blocks, surimi, pollock roe, fishmeal and fish oil.

Robert Bleu, president of Shining Ocean, a major 
surimi producer based in Sumner, Wash., says prices have reflected shorter supplies, adding that surimi has also been hit by increased costs for other ingredients.

In response, Shining Ocean is also looking for ways to improve efficiencies and create value for its customers, while exploring price increases as well.

Shining Ocean, which serves about 200 customers, has seen the surimi business level off, says Bleu. "Some of our customers' business is up 15 to 20 percent, while others are down 15 to 20 percent. There hasn't been significant growth in surimi, and the cost of materials is up, so that doesn't help us much in our current economy. But we've taken less of a hit than other high-grade seafood."

Because supplies of king and snow crab remain tight, van Amerongen sees continued demand for surimi.

Trident has recently focused on a couple of different surimi-seafood options: snack-ready sticks in vacuum packages that allow consumers to eat them as they do string cheese; and "super shred" surimi, which has a different look and mouth feel than traditional surimi seafood.

"We introduced a wasabi-stuffed surimi stick at the Boston Seafood Show last spring," says van Amerongen, "and it sampled very well. I'd expect to see more of that sort of item in retail." For foodservice, the super-shred option is appealing for sandwiches and salad preparations.

With pollock, he says, the focus has been on reformulating Trident's fish stick to conform to natural-ingredient guidelines. And the company has also been reworking its breaded fish that is sold to military customers, he says.

"They've been moving away from deep fryers in their galleys and mess halls, working quite hard to dial back the fat in the food they serve the troops," he says. But the flip side is that breaded fish now needs to crisp up in the oven. Trident's answer is a panko-breaded sandwich portion.

 

Educating the educators

Like the military, schools have also taken a closer look at their menus, which has been a boon for pollock, 
says Shanahan.

GAPP has been working for the past five years on bringing high-quality fish, such as pollock, into schools. Just recently pollock was included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's commodity purchasing program.

Under the program, explains Shanahan, schools that provide free or reduced-cost meals to children earn credits, which can then be used to purchase various commodity foods, such as once-frozen pollock blocks. The government buys the fish at the market rate, while schools get a good quality product at a good price, she says.

The interest has been so good, she says, that "initially, we were caught by surprise," and had to explain to the schools that unlike some food items that are available year-round, pollock is caught during a specific season and sold based on customer demand.

In that way, pollock is much more like a fresh fruit and vegetable program, says Shanahan, than it is like other proteins.

Although the percentage of the total catch going to schools is still small, says Wells of Arctic Storm, the program will be helpful in marketing additional quota next year. He credited GAPP's ongoing education program with schools for the acceptance of pollock as part of the USDA program.

"We've been educating schools on how to be smart food purchasers," says Shanahan. "And we're excited too that the new FDA dietary guidelines recommend fish be included, so now there will be more demand."

Wells says the reason pollock works for school lunch programs is multi-faceted. "Pollock is high in protein, has omega-3, and carries a coating well," he says, and is replacing cod as a mellow-tasting, flaky whitefish.

Colleges and universities have also found success menuing pollock, as evidenced at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Patrick Niles, foodservice director for A'viands Food and Services Management, which has run the UWGB program since 2009, says pollock is menued daily when school is in session.

"We go through five cases of breaded pollock a week," says Fazli Ademi, executive chef for A'viands. Fried sells better than baked, however, even though Ademi has tried to work baked pollock and other species into his menu.

In its Marketplace Entrées area - one of 11 dining options on campus - 6 ounces of fried pollock sells for $3.85. "It's a good value, so it sells well," says Ademi. "I've tried salmon and tilapia, baked cod and shrimp, but none sells as well as the fried pollock," he explains.

Niles notes the foodservice plan is currently in the process of switching to a sustainable seafood program that will follow the recommendations of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. Alaska pollock and surimi made from Alaska pollock are rated as good alternatives on the list.

The challenge, says 
both Niles and Ademi, is finding a vendor that can supply only sustainably harvested seafood.

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

 

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