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Top Species: Cod

From coast to coast, cod fills the whitefish niche

By Joanne Friedrick
December 01, 2010

The continuing interest in sourcing seafood from sustainable fisheries has focused a spotlight on Pacific cod ( Gadus macrocephalus ), which had two fisheries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) earlier this year.

Longline-, trawl-, pot- and jig-caught cod in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands were determined to be sustainable and well managed by Moody Marine Ltd. for the MSC.

Aquamarine Seafood, a brokerage in San Diego, deals in arctic trawl cod from Alaska that is MSC certified, says Mike Lindquist, owner. Having the certification "will help shed some light on cod for retailers and restaurants," he says. "Restaurant groups that want to go sustainable will be looking at this to fill their needs."

Cod already appeals to restaurateurs, says Lindquist, and this designation may put it ahead of some other whitefish species. "The one thing cod has going for it, especially well-processed cod, is that it's a mild whitefish and provides a good entry into eating seafood. It fills a lot of conceptual things that people are looking for and it's a good value," he says.


Plentiful and sustainable

Pacific cod is managed through total allowable catch (TAC) levels, which are hard limits set on the harvest based on scientific principles, says Cassandra Squibb, account supervisor for Schiedermayer & Associates in Juneau, Alaska, and public relations spokesperson for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

TAC levels have fluctuated a little over the past few years, going from 220,989 metric tons in 2008 to slightly less in 2009 at 218,347 metric tons and rising this year to 228,343 metric tons. Although subject to in-season revision, the Alaska Pacific cod TAC for 2011 is currently set at 281,299 metric tons.

Like the TAC numbers, prices for cod have also risen and fallen in recent years. Annual average export prices for cod were $1.40 per pound in 2007, $1.51 in 2008 and $1.35 in 2009, according to ASMI. For January through August this year, prices rose slightly to $1.38 per pound.

With the quota staying consistent the past few years, Lindquist says there has been little carryover as customers buy up what is available.

"I still think it's a tremendous value when compared against halibut or orange roughy," he says, noting wholesale prices for filleted Alaska cod is in the $3.75 to $3.85 per-pound range versus $3.20 to $3.30 in the past. "[The price] has floated up, but so has the price for most other species," he says.

Keith Decker, president and CEO of High Liner Foods USA of Danvers, Mass., notes the company is the largest purchaser of cod in North America, dealing in both Atlantic and Pacific cod.

"Cod has been a fantastic story in the past two to three years," he says, with the Atlantic catch up 36 percent to 1 million metric tons and the Pacific catch, which includes Alaska and Russia, up 26 percent to 400,000 metric tons.

In the United States, Atlantic cod landings improved from 2005 to 2008, rising from 6,304 metric tons to 8,073 metric tons. The landings for 2009 totaled just over 7,257 metric tons.

Canada exported 2,131 metric tons to the U.S. market, while Iceland exported 3,719 metric tons.

Efforts to control illegal fishing in the Baltic Sea has resulted in an increased biomass there, and similar projects are taking place in the Bering Sea as well, says Decker.

High Liner has made sustainable practices a focus, naming Bill DiMento the company's corporate director of sustainability in 2009, says Decker. "We believe this is one of the most important things to do as a company," says Decker.

Although supply and demand are strong, the biggest impact on cod has been the collapse of the economy, says Decker. The high prices of 2008 are a thing of the past, he says, dropping to five-year lows in 2009. A weak U.S. currency doesn't help the issue either, he adds.


New flavor profiles

Still, Decker sees lots of possibilities for cod, which High Liner deals in both as a commodity and with value-added presentations. The traditional breaded and battered versions, which have been popular with the fish-and-chips set, are trending now to "lightly treated, minimal coating," he says.

This new take on preparing cod "goes well with the overall health trend," he says, which is a move away from high-fat and high-sodium products. High Liner sells under both the Fisher Boy and Sea Cuisine labels in supermarkets and offers foodservice products through its Fishery Products International division.

Among the new flavor options being presented at retail are a potato-crusted cod with cheddar and chive crust and pan-seared cod with rotisserie-style seasonings.

Decker places cod among the premium whitefish, along with haddock and ahead of pollock, catfish, pangasius and tilapia. Cod lends itself to offering a "thick, meaty fillet," he says. "You can get a 5-, 6- or 7-ounce loin portion out of a fillet."

This center-of-the-plate approach to cod is more popular on the East Coast, says Lindquist, where cod, haddock and scrod have historically been prepared this way. In most regions, he says, cod is still historically used in fish and chips.

"It can be a perception issue," says Lindquist. "Cod has been fish and chips for so long, so it's not thought of for other things." And at the retail seafood counter, he says, cod is often squeezed out by other species that have more eye appeal. "Cod doesn't have a commanding presence in retail," he says. "The color isn't like other whitefish."

That hasn't kept Joe McAvoy, chef and seafood department manager at Hegedorn's, a specialty supermarket in Webster, N.Y., from featuring Icelandic cod in his ads and within the store's seafood department.

McAvoy offers both Atlantic and Pacific cod when available, mostly in the form of frozen boneless and skinless fillets. The recent Icelandic cod special was priced at $7.99 per pound, he says, making it competitive with other species.

Cod rivals tilapia in popularity, he says, but hasn't caught up with haddock, which McAvoy says is a better-recognized fish among 
its customers.

McAvoy offers original recipes on a regular basis to customers, and those involving cod steer away from its battered-and-fried past. "My usual recipes prepare it baked, broiled or pan seared," he says. "I go for healthier recipes [instead of] frying." He also features cod in ready-to-heat dinner packages that can be reheated in a microwave.

To assist retailers and foodservice operators in promoting cod in their establishments, ASMI offers various support materials and online resources, says Schiedermayer's Squibb. ASMI just added a new section to its retail website highlighting materials for Alaska cod, including posters, recipe leaflets and signs. Foodservice operators have access to a whitefish buyer's guide, she says, that offers details on the species, how it is harvested and resource management.


Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine


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