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Top Species: Tuna

Well-known product’s image keeps getting fine-tuned

Tuna is the second-most popular species, but sales have dropped off. - Photo courtesy of Tuna the Wonderfish
Joanne Friedrick
March 05, 2011

If the marketers have their way, this could be the year that everyone talks tuna. The Tuna Council, which is made up of the “Big Three” U.S. tuna canners, along with the Thai tuna industry, launched the Tuna the Wonderfish! advertising campaign in January, with the goal of growing a category that has been declining since 2003, says Gavin Gibbons, director of media relations at the National Fisheries Institute in McLean, Va.

Even though canned tuna is still the second-most popular seafood in the United States, Gibbons says that with the exception of a slight bump in sales between 2007 and 2008, the industry has watched sales slide for nearly a decade.

Thus, Gibbons says, “the group felt it was time to do a reminder campaign” touting the healthy and easy-to-prepare messages of canned and pouched tuna. Chicken of the Sea, Starkist and Thai tuna suppliers backed the program, which involves a TV campaign, print ads and online marketing. San Diego-based Bumble Bee Foods, which was acquired by Lion Capital in December for $980 million, is also a member of the council and a participant in the marketing program. 

John Sawyer, senior VP-sales and marketing for Chicken of the Sea, says canned tuna “remains core to customers’ plans and consumers’ purchasing behavior.” The industry is seeing gains in convenience packaging, such as peel-and-eat cups and pouches, and both albacore and light tuna sales remain strong, “particularly in a difficult economy when consumers are looking for cost-effective protein sources,” says Sawyer.

The ads will run throughout the year, says Gibbons, and then the council will evaluate whether to renew the program or not. An out-of-home marketing segment, aimed at 20 health clubs around the United States, is also part of the Tuna the Wonderfish! program, he says.

In addition to a reminder about tuna’s versatility, Gibbons says the commercials take a light-hearted approach to delivering the messages of heart health based on its omega-3 content and weight management associated with tuna consumption. 

Making a case for albacore

In a similar vein, the Oregon Albacore Commission has its own marketing campaign in the works, according to Nancy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the group, which is based in Lincoln City, Ore.

The commission, she notes, hired Watershed Communications in Portland, Ore., to help prepare “a more pointed message” about albacore. “We want to alert the public that Oregon albacore is sustainable, well managed and [Marine Stewardship Council] certified,” she says.

Once the key talking points have been established, the commission and Watershed will then develop a new marketing approach that could be unveiled this summer, she says.

The commission has long provided recipes and brochures to retailers and exhibited at trade shows or done sampling in stores. It also has an ongoing project with fishermen who sell directly to the public during the season, she says. The organization’s website lists the boats by port so consumers can contact them about direct purchases.

Last year, the Oregon albacore catch was about 10 million pounds, says Fitzpatrick, which was about average. With that much tuna to work with, she says the goal is to increase domestic sales as well as improve fresh tuna sales by explaining that tuna loins and steaks are easy to prepare. “These are all messages we hope to be working on,” she says.

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, 2009 albacore landings reached nearly 28 million pounds, followed by bigeye at approximately 11.5 million pounds, yellowfin at 6.1 million and bluefin at nearly 2 million pounds. Other tuna species caught in U.S. waters included skipjack and blackfin. 

Additionally, Fitzpatrick says the new campaign will address the issue of methylmercury in tuna by using recent scientific data about how the higher selenium levels in the fish can counteract the negative effects of mercury. Albacore, yellowfin and skipjack tunas all have high selenium-to-mercury ratios.

Price reflects supply, quality

Internationally, more than 60 countries produced fresh or canned tuna in 2010. Through November 2010, the leaders in tuna exports to the United States were Thailand, which exported 307.7 million pounds, followed by the Philippines with 61.6 million pounds and Indonesia with 56.5 million pounds.

Charlie Nishimiya, tuna branch manager for Maguro International in Gloucester, Mass., deals primarily in bluefin, bigeye and yellowfin tuna, both domestic and imported. This year, he says, cold weather and winter storms are keeping boats off the water, resulting in a poor catch. Spanish bluefin and farmed bluefin from Mexico both command a higher price, he says; the former because of the weak dollar and the latter because of lower supply.

Southern bluefin has also been targeted by the Center for Biological Diversity for endangered species status, in part because of the impact of the Gulf oil spill on its breeding grounds. An official NMFS review is under way.

While Nishimiya concentrates on East Coast tuna procurement, in the winter imports come from Thailand and Vietnam. “The yellowfin usually comes from Vietnam,” he explains, although with this year’s supply the quality wasn’t comparable to that of other seasons. 

For Gary Lim, controller at Taiwan Seafood & Fish Corp. in Los Angeles, prices for fresh and frozen tuna have been higher compared with last year. “Supply is a little short,” he says, so imports are running $6 a pound or more.

Costs are also up, he says, because buyers and ultimately consumers are more selective about what they are buying. “They are more educated and are more picky,” he says. And because of this demand for quality, Lim says he doesn’t see prices coming down anytime soon.

Tuna is a commodity business “and prices fluctuate based on energy costs, supply and demand,” says Chicken of the Sea’s Sawyer. “We’re fortunate to have a very seasoned procurement team that’s pretty savvy when it comes to forecasting. That, in turn, helps us manage our costs pretty well and is instrumental in our relationships with our customers.”

While canned tuna still dominates sales, Lim says Taiwan Seafoods’ fresh tuna business has been building since the early 1980s. His customers, who are wholesalers selling to restaurants and supermarkets, prefer yellowfin, which is geared to American tastes and preparation methods, he says. The Japanese market prefers bigeye and bluefin, he notes.

Americans like yellowfin because it is a firm fish that can take a sear, he says. “Bigeye tends to be slick and Americans aren’t sure how to deal with that.”

Since he began working in the industry in 1987, Lim has seen more and more restaurants adding tuna to their menus. “Even with restaurants that don’t do sushi,” he says. From white tablecloth to chain establishments, “everyone is offering it.”

Retailers are also keeping tuna in their cases year-round, even though its appeal is stronger in the warmer months.

Both frozen yellowfin and top-grade fresh tuna are staples in the seafood department at Pennington Quality Market in Pennington, N.J. Denise Byzek, seafood department manager, says in the colder months, people back away from tuna because they use it primarily for grilling. And that’s also how she recommends customers prepare it. 

“I tell them to keep it simple: The simpler, the better,” says Byzek.

The yellowfin has been selling for $10.99 a pound, although she did offer it on special at Super Bowl time. The fresh tuna, which was coming from Panama or Vietnam, sells for $18.99 a pound.

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

March 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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