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A view of what's hot and what's not on today's fish price/supply scene.

A View of What's Hot and What's Not On Today's Fish Price/Supply Scene

Alaska pollock, frozen salmon, ocean perch, Greenland halibut, shrimp, crabs, Nile perch and pelagic species of all types are rated good values. Among the worst buys are rock lobster tails.

What will be the best seafood buys of 1990? A panel of industry insiders convened to venture predictions, or maybe educated guesses, at the recent Boston Seafood Show. Among their picks, based on an equation of quality, price and availability:

* Alaska pollock tops the short list prepared by Erna Reingold of Mermaid Seafood Inc., Connecticut, USA. "It's versatile, a good resource and very affordably priced." Another favorite is yellowfin sole, which she called "the most affordable, consistent flatfish you can find."

* Mackeral, herring and pelagic fish in general were the choices of Mark Thomas, Jaytee Seafoods Ltd., UK. He said that customer demand should increase due to the species' high content of Omega-3 oil which has been associated with good health.

* Anticipating a drop in flatfish supplies, ocean perch (with a 70,000 metric ton potential), Greenland turbot and frozen or processed lobster look pretty good to Nilo Cachero of the Canadian Association of Fish Exporters. "Live lobster will be short due to minimum size requirements, which will probably result in fewer New England landings," he figures, "but the regulations only apply to live, not frozen species."

* Bob Cerullo of Twin County Grocers, New Jersey, USA, is bullish on Nile perch. "Whether or not it's successful will depend on marketing. The fish comes from Africa, where things such as roads are suspect. But if handled right it could be a winner."

As for live lobsters: "They're a disaster. We've considered turning off tanks (in supermarkets), but demand is still there. So perhaps there's an opportunity for slipper lobster tails."

* Shrimp, frozen salmon and crab are the best bets so far as Bob Joseph of General Mills Restaurants (parent company of Red Lobster) is concerned. "Rock lobster tails will probably be the worst buy of the year. As the world becomes more affluent, a lot more product will stay at home," he said.

Even some unaffluent countries will snap up fillet raw materials that normally would enter international trade channels, suggested Ms. Reingold. She said that much of the Pacific flatfish catch landed by USSR trawlers is likely to be sent into the Soviet interior to feed an increasingly restless domestic population.

"Prices will shoot up further into the year," she predicted. "So now is the time to make contracts for deliveries in a few months. Come September or October they might not be available."

Meanwhile, the Pacific pollock resource should be very reliable. Alaska's 1 million ton quota is unchanged from last year.

"Restaurant chains, particularly in the Midwest (USA), serve Alaska pollock regularly," said the Mermaid president. "But practically every pound is sold at a loss by packers who get 90 [cents] to $1 per pound when they need $1.50 to break even, or make a small profit."

Ms. Reingold sees fillet prices remaining the same. Blocks will probably sell at 89 [cents] a pound, with sales dropping in the summer and picking up during the winter when processors gear up pack production.

As for Alaska cod, Japanese buyers are paying $1,800 per metric ton for frozen headed and gutted fish, which amounts to $2.80 a pound for cod fillets at the end-user level. So, depending on the pace of global demand, cod prices will probably go up before stabilizing. With millions of pounds leaving cold stores, a tightening of supplies can be expected to be followed by higher prices.

South American resources of hake or whiting -- largely from Argentina and Uruguay -- are said to be healthy. The species is pretty much available for harvesting throughout the year, although deliveries have been interrupted in the past by man-made actions such as strikes.

New Zealand hoki, at $1.20 to $1.30 a pound, is considered to be a good buy at the moment. This year's supply outlook is favorable, so traders look for stable pricing to continue.

But the big question for hoki suppliers is: Will they be able to create a market big enough to take their tonnage? While much emphasis has been placed on stimulating interest in the USA, the payoff remains to be seen.

"We've tried it on the retail level, but there just doesn't seem to be any demand for it -- even at $1.99 a pound," said Bob Cerullo.

"It's not a substitute for cod," commented Bob Joseph of General Mills Restaurants. "You can't grill it. And it's priced higher than pollock. It's a good fish on its own, but somebody has to make the investment to promote it."

And that "somebody" is not about to be the Red Lobster chain, which spent upwards of $13 million to make another New Zealand species -- namely one Orange Roughy -- a household name in the mid-1980s.

"It was deemed a substitute for flounder and sold for 59 [cents] a pound in those days. When it went over $4 our margins -- figuring costs of $3.50 -- got killed, so we had to take it off the menu," explained Joseph.

Meanwhile, prices have leveled off at $3.50 a pound as the prognosis for combined catches from New Zealand and Australia suggests a 50% greater yield over last year.

Red Lobster, which is not crazy about spending as much as $60,000 to print up new menus every time it changes featured species, now prefers to use a more generic "white fish" reference. This has hardly helped whet the appetites of foodservice customers for exotic-sounding names.

So, what has most of the 450-unit chain's $70 million annual TV advertising budget been pushing lately? Why shrimp, of course -- the abundant, low-priced shellfish that Americans love to eat. And at $8.95 for a plate of 30 pieces, Red Lobster has been packing in diners.

"We use half a million pounds of shrimp a year," said Joseph. "So we sort of collect product throughout the year if we know we're going to do a big promotion."

The General Mills subsidiary has also put a lot of emphasis on fresh fish offerings, as more than 10% of its menu now boasts such fare. Monkfish, which is touted as the "poor man's lobster," has become the sixth best selling product. "But the problem is consistency of supply," admitted Joseph.

Wrapping up his 1990 outlook on supply and price, the General Mills executive remarked: "We will see lots of species substitution this year. Smart buyers will look into what's available with the notion that there are great opportunities for U.S. consumption to go up at all levels."

PHOTO : Erna Reingold of Mermaid Seafood Inc. predicts that the diversion of more USSR-produced

PHOTO : raw fillets to an increasingly demanding domestic market could put a pinch on

PHOTO : globally-traded supplies.
COPYRIGHT 1990 E.W. Williams Publications, Inc.
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Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Apr 1, 1990
Previous Article:Future of Indian shrimp exports depends on better aquaculture.
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