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Top Species: Mahimahi

Mahi gives operators a steady performer with great value

By Joanne Friedrick
January 01, 2011

Like a song that is catchy, but not destined to become a smash hit, mahimahi has steadily climbed the charts in popularity, although no one is expecting it to surpass salmon or tilapia among 
fish lovers.

Still, suppliers such as Orca Bay Seafoods in Renton, Wash., are pleased with the steady growth of mahimahi since it first became part of their product offerings about 15 years ago.

"It definitely is a core item in our portfolio," says Larry Williams, director of retail sales and marketing. "If you look at all our species, salmon and tilapia are No. 1 and 2, followed by yellowfin tuna," he says. But 
mahimahi has climbed from the No. 8 or 9 spot to the point where it has surpassed halibut and cod among the company's top sellers.

Mahimahi's positive attributes, he says, are its good sustainability rating and its moderate price versus fish such as halibut and sockeye salmon. At the New 
Fulton Fish Market Cooperative at Hunts Point in the Bronx, N.Y., 3- to 5-pound frozen fillets from Peru were selling for $2.20 a pound in early December.

Among foodservice operators, mahimahi "still has a great price value," he says. It's not as affordable as tilapia, which is often promoted as a value species, but it isn't 
inching toward the high-end of the menu like wild salmon.

Mahimahi also has broad appeal among consumers because it has a mild flavor and presents a blank canvas of sorts for sauces and seasonings.

Orca Bay offers mahimahi in 10-ounce fillets and as part of its new SteamWell line, prepared with a sundried 
tomato chipotle sauce.

"Our director of product development likes mahi for its ease of preparation," says Williams, adding that mahimahi lends itself to steam-cooking, but can also be prepared pan-fried, baked or broiled.

The steam-cooked option helps differentiate the seafood category in general, he says, and is likely to see additional line extensions. "People continue to look for value," he says, noting the 8-ounce serving offers 5.5 ounces of mahimahi and 2.5 ounces of sauce for $5.99.

The price of mahimahi has remained fairly stable, says Williams, "and because there are two seasons, it's prevalent." Orca Bay sources mahimahi from South America between October and February and from Taiwan from April to July.


South of the border

In 2009, mahimahi, also known as dolphin fish or dorado, came fresh and frozen to the United States largely from South American countries: Ecuador, 12.8 million pounds; Peru, 11.6 million pounds; Panama, 3.27 million pounds; and Costa Rica, slightly more than 1 million pounds. And Chinese-controlled Taiwan accounted for 6.57 million pounds in 2009.

Williams says there isn't a noticeable difference in mahimahi depending on where it comes from, and Orca Bay packs it from multiple sources.

The United States also has a domestic mahimahi supply, coming primarily from Hawaii, the Gulf states of Texas, Alabama, Louisiana and Florida and the Atlantic coast off of North and South Carolina. In 2009, mahimahi landings from all U.S. states accounted for 2.79 million pounds. Hawaii was by far the leading producer, landing nearly 1.3 million pounds.

Clear Springs Foods in Buhl, Idaho, added mahimahi to its offerings five years ago. Don Riffle, executive VP-sales and marketing says the fish "has performed well for us" and it gives another dimension to the company's retail line that includes trout and pangasius.

"We needed to source other raw material other than trout and source it in an economical way," says Riffle. The company was already bringing in trout from Chile, so it made logistical sense to bring in mahimahi from Central and South America, he says.

Riffle says mahimahi sales "grow every year for us." Mahimahi, he points out, is well known among consumers. Clear Springs has a macadamia-coconut-crusted mahi retail product and just recently launched a Jamaican jerk-flavored variety.

Mahimahi is also the only wild, value-added fish offered by Clear Springs, which Riffle says is sourced from Peru and Ecuador.

Pricewise, he says, it has been stable for the past year or so. "We've learned when to buy at a good price," he says, by partnering with the producers.

Although just a minor part of Clear Springs' business now, Riffle says the dining and foodservice segment is embracing mahimahi.

"It has relatively good acceptance coast to coast and that helps when selling it 
as part of a line of products," he says.

Clear Springs is also interested in having mahimahi remain a species that has a good sustainability rating "and we are working with producers and looking at the fishing industries in Peru and Ecuador to make sure it stays sustainable."

Tim Lycke, president of Incredible Fish in Miami, says the fall mahimahi season for 2010 got off to a slow start, probably because of the water temperatures.

"Mahi like warm water," he says, and with the weather patterns, full moon and global warming "things are delayed. We usually see good production this time of year."

As a result, he says, prices out of Ecuador at the beginning of the South American season were edging higher, with fresh H&G 5- to 10-pounders at $2.25 per pound, 10-15s at $3.20, 15-20s at $3.25 and 20-plus at $3.35 a pound. About a month into the season, prices were matching last year's range, he says, with 5-10s at $2.25, 10-15s at $2.75 and 15-plus at $3. Fresh fillets were selling at $5 a pound.

Like Williams and Riffle, Lycke says retailers and restaurateurs are bullish on mahimahi because customers know what it is "and people feel comfortable with it."

Right now, he says, demand is good and it has the added cachet of being a wild fish. The price, even though higher than usual, is still 
attractive compared with many other species, he says, such as tuna that is selling at $9 or $10 a pound.

"It's a good fish," Lycke says, "and if it's priced right, people will eat it."


No small fry wanted

However, not everyone is looking to stock imported mahimahi in their seafood cases. And if the domestic supply isn't fitting specifications, some stores may be mahimahi-free zones.

At Tuckahoe Seafood in Richmond, Va., owner Brian O'Donohue says he's been without mahimahi since spring. Not because he can't source imported product, but because he prefers the domestic fish from the Atlantic and it hasn't been available in the sizes he needs.

"Mahi is popular with my customers," says O'Donohue. "We sell it as the ideal fish taco fish. But I haven't had it all summer."

O'Donohue's local wholesalers are only able to get 6- to 8-pound fish, which aren't large enough to provide him with 1.5-inch or larger fillets. "We're a high-end fish market and we like to get it [according] to our specifications."

The fillets that come out of a 6-pound fish are too thin, he says, and the fish from the Caribbean or South America takes too long to get to him. It may look good for a day or two, but then it starts to go bad, he says.

"It's a good seller when we have it," says O'Donohue, who adds that there isn't a good substitute for a thick mahi fillet. "We did some wahoo and then we get into the other white-fleshed fish like grouper and cod."

O'Donohue works with six different suppliers as well as regional wholesalers, and says the reason the fish are smaller is because the bigger ones didn't find their way up the coast this year. Both his suppliers and sport fishermen he knows have said the same thing, he says. "They just weren't catching the big ones."


Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

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