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January 2011 Issue

Frustration in Fisheries, Aquaculture
As Consumption, Production, Prices Dip

By Rick Martin
Commercial Fisheries News and Fish Farming News
Compass Publications Inc.

Despite signs of a marginally improving economy, including a reported modest uptick in restaurant sales, the U.S. seafood production community—consisting of commercial fishermen and domestic fish farmers—has yet to feel the impact.

Production from both sectors is off, and even seafood imported from abroad, which had been steadily expanding throughout the recession, have now temporarily peaked and declined.

The cause: Americans are eating less seafood. This, in turn, is driving down both demand and prices, frustrating an industry that is wondering just what it will take to stimulate sagging U.S. seafood sales.

Commercial Landings
U.S. commercial fishermen landed 7.9 billion pounds of fish and shellfish in 2009 (the most recent year for which statistics are available). This represented a decrease of 458.5 million pounds, or a decline of about six percent, compared with 2008, according to NOAA's 2009 annual report, 'Fisheries of the United States.'

Value of U.S. commercial landings in 2009 also declined. The value of commercial landings was $3.9 billion, down by $501.6 million, or a decrease of roughly 11 percent, compared with 2008.

Imports also dropped off in both volume and value. NOAA calculated imports of edible fishery products in 2009 at 5.2 billion pounds, valued at $13.1 billion. This was a decrease of 64.4 million pounds and a decline of $1 billion in value.

Seafood Consumption
Per capita seafood consumption in the U.S. continued to trend downward in 2009. After a slight rise in 2006, consumption numbers declined in 2007 and then again in 2008. In 2009, U.S. consumers ate 15.8 pounds of seafood per person, a dip of 0.2 pounds from 2008 figures, and well below the all-time record high of 16.6 pounds in 2004.

U.S. consumers spent an estimated $75.5 billion for fish and seafood products in 2009. Americans continue to eat most of their seafood in restaurants, spending $50.3 billion in food-service purchases (restaurants, take-out, caterers, etc.). About $23.8 billion was spent on seafood for at-home preparation and consumption.

Shrimp remained the top choice for U.S. consumers, the same as in 2008. Canned tuna, salmon, Alaskan pollock and tilapia rounded out the top-five list of most popular seafood. Trailing tilapia were catfish, crab, cod, clams and pangasius (or so-called imported catfish) to complete the top-10 list.

Aquaculture Production
U.S. aquaculture production declined in output weight during 2008 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), accompanied by a decline in production value.

Total production in 2008 was 773,837 thousand pounds, versus 821,607 thousand pounds for the previous year. Catfish production was down about 10 percent, to 514,920 thousand pounds, but salmon saw its first significant production gains since 2004, hitting 36,848 thousand pounds in 2008, up from 24,253 thousand pounds the previous year.

Most other commercially cultured species, including trout, striped bass, tilapia, clams, oysters, crawfish and shrimp, were stable or slightly off from 2007 levels. Total value of U.S. aquaculture production in 2008 was $1.19 billion, topping the one-billion mark for the fifth consecutive year, but declining slightly from 2007's $1.2 billion value.

Looking Ahead
If past history is a reliable indicator, continued improvement in the overall U.S. economy will eventually trickle down to seafood producers. But no one is willing to stick their neck out very far these days to say when that will actually happen.

Strengthening demand for seafood will stimulate prices, experts predict, and then in theory, production expansion will follow. Many U.S. fisheries are currently regulated, however, to where increased landings are not possible, but fishermen would still welcome an improvement in prices.

Domestic fish farmers on the other hand are in a position to ramp up production to fill more demand, but are wary of foreign imports. The U.S. farm-raised catfish industry, in particular, has been locked in a struggle to retain market share against a flood of less expensive catfish-like Asian imports.

One industry insider seemed to accurately capture the prevailing mood: 'We've gone from cautious optimism (for modest improvement), to being happy to settle for economic stability—that will hopefully stop this backslide. If we can just stop losing ground in 2011, that will be cause for celebration.'

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