Fishing for dollars

Seafood sales are on the rise as consumers continually look for tasty and cost effective ways to eat healthy.

4_tempura_samurai_12035These are good times for the seafood industry—except, of course, for the fish.

Price increases for meats are sending shoppers to the seafood counter in waves. Whether it is wild salmon caught off the coast of Alaska, crawfish from Louisiana’s waters or tuna from the mid-Atlantic, more and more consumers are hankering for fresh seafood.

The increase in meat prices, combined with a decrease in seafood prices led to both higher dollar (up 6.9%) and volume (up 7.5%) seafood sales, for the 52 weeks ended May 25, according to the Chicago-based Nielsen Perishables Group.

The boon can be attributed to more than just price. Industry observers say the trend toward healthier eating is playing a big role. “As Baby Boomers increase in age and the younger generations look for healthier alternatives, seafood has taken center stage,” says Bob O’Bryant, marketing director for the Clackamas, Ore.-based Pacific Seafood Group.

Lower price-points and the healthy aspects seafood offer have also led to consumer purchases that expand beyond the more traditional and popular options. Some say this is due in part to the value/affordability ratio. Take keta for example.

“Keta not only provides a good price-point for consumers, but also has a great flavor profile for those that prefer a milder fish,” says Larry Andrews, retail marketing director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), whose U.S. marketing offices are based in Seattle. “I also see an increase in Alaska’s underutilized species. Alaska offers a broad portfolio of species that not only cover the spectrum in terms of flavor profiles, but also numerous price-points.”

Andrews says it makes sense for retailers to promote the healthful aspects, flavor and versatility of seafood, but they need to do even more. Observers say that even though consumers are aware of the health and cost benefits fish and other seafoods provide, the fear of the unknown—proper preparation—can often prevent purchase.

“When it comes to preparing seafood, consumers are a bit afraid of just how to go about it without over-cooking,” says Andrews. “These are certainly easily addressed issues, however it may take a commitment and a concentrated promotional effort on the part of retailers.”

sockeye_fillet_5x7Many retailers have accepted the challenge and are becoming increasingly creative when it comes to marketing seafood and helping consumers—beyond just offering cooking tips.

“We have seen an increase in the number of retailers seasoning and marinating seafood for customers,” says Annette Chalmers, U.S. retail director for Clearwater Seafoods, based in Bedford, N.S., Canada. “These ‘speed scratch’ items are very popular with consumers, giving them the head start they are looking for in the kitchen while still allowing them to customize their meals and make them their own.”

As with other fresh categories, it is becoming increasingly important to consumers that they know where their seafood is coming from, say observers. That includes farm-raised versus wild, domestic versus imported and certain specific areas of the country. Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotions Marketing Board (LSPMB), based in New Orleans, says much like the potato category and its Idaho potato brand, different regions of the country are capitalizing on state recognition.

“People want to know where their product is coming from,” says Smith. “They want to know the source. There is a trend to brand geographically where a product is coming from. Whether it is Louisiana, Mississippi, Maine or Alaska, people want to know. There is a distinction in that.”

Smith uses crawfish as an example. He says there is a price difference in farm-raised crawfish from overseas and the premium price domestic Louisiana crawfish are getting. “Consumers are willing to pay the difference because they want that local product,” he says.

For the last three years the LSPMB has been rebuilding its brand to where Smith says it is now known at a national level. Though known nationally, the promotion of the brand continues. “The big markets for us are New York, Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta,” he says. “We are developing programs for retailers in those areas as well as others across the U.S.”

Part of the program includes providing retailers with resources to help educate back-of-house employees on the many different species from Louisiana.

Sustaining seafood

2_creole_cod_cajun_12008Also at the forefront for the LSPMB—as well as most seafood marketers and distributors—is sustainability. The LSPMB is currently working with the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans to develop a sustainability program for the Gulf Coast, starting with Louisiana.

The Pacific Seafood Group has been involved in sustainability since before sustainability became the buzz that it is today, says O’ Bryant. The company has formalized the process and actions its has taken over the years and created an initiative called “The Pacific Advantage.”

With the premise that they are stewards of the resource, not the owners, O’Bryant says the values of the initiative are four-fold: Stewardship; Sustainability; Quality Assurance and Traceability.

Preserving a sustainable resource is a huge undertaking, likely too big for just government agencies to go alone. To help, Pacific Seafood joined forces with the National Fisheries Institute and many others in the industry in founding the Better Seafood Board (BSB). The BSB is a self-policing industry organization and a starting point to report illegal and misrepresented seafood.

“We don’t want to harvest the last fish, but manage the resource through verifiable science data,” says O’Bryant. “The West Coast including Alaska, has some of the most sustainable fisheries in the world due to long-term management involvement of industry, fisherman, NGO’s and government agencies working towards one goal, a healthy sustainable resource.”

Clearwater officials say they are also working to constantly review their supply chain and put in place initiatives to address impacts on the environment.

“We have always strived to be a leader in the fishing industry and continuously improve our operations,” says Chalmers. “In today’s world of environmental uncertainty, we have redoubled our efforts to be leaders in sustainable and responsible fishing practices as well as in all our interactions with our environment.”

While sustainability is clearly a top priority for those within the industry, some suggest it is still more of just that—an industry issue, not a consumer issue.

“I am of the belief that consumers’ [shop] with retailers that they feel meet their core values,” says ASMI’s Andrews. “I do believe there is a great deal of confusion on the part of a few retailers and that strong scientific management and true third-party appraisal is being overlooked—instead for a label preference.”  

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