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January 2014 Issue

Fisheries & Aquaculture: Landings, Farmed Production and Consumption Dip

By Rick Martin
Publisher, Commercial Fisheries News and Fish Farming News

At a time when most indicators show a steadily improving economy and a heightened awareness among consumers of the benefits of a diet rich in seafood, the U.S. commercial fishing and aquaculture industries cannot seem to benefit from these trends.

The latest available data show a decline in landings by U.S. commercial fishermen, a precipitous dip in domestic aquaculture production and even further slippage in per capita seafood consumption levels.

Instead of growing, these industries are struggling to stave off further shrinkage.

Commercial Landings
U.S. commercial fishermen landed 9.6 billion pounds of fish and shellfish in 2012 (the most recent year for which statistics are available). This represented a decrease of 224 million pounds, or about 2.2 percent, compared to 2011, according to NOAA's annual report, Fisheries of the United States, 2012.

Value of U.S. commercial landings was also down. The value of commercial landings was $5.1 billion, down by $186 million, or a decrease of roughly 3.5 percent versus 2011.

Imports, however, were up slightly in volume and value. Imports of edible fishery products in 2012 were calculated by NOAA at 5.4 billion pounds, which was valued at $16.7 billion. This was an increase of 16.9 million pounds and an increase of $72 million in value.

Seafood Consumption
Slippage in per capita seafood consumption in the U.S. during 2012 caught many in the industry by surprise.

Consumption numbers have generally been in decline since 2007, but in 2012 U.S. consumers ate just 14.4 pounds of seafood per person, a dip of 0.8 pounds from 2011 figures and well below the all-time record high of 16.6 pounds in 2004.

In fact, one would have to go back to the early 1980s to find comparably low per capita seafood consumption numbers.

U.S. consumers spent an estimated $82.6 billion for fish and seafood products in 2012. Americans continue to eat most of their seafood in restaurants, spending $55.2 billion in food-service purchases (restaurants, takeout, caterers, etc.). About $26.8 billion was spent on seafood for at-home preparation and consumption.

Shrimp remained the top choice for U.S. consumers, as it has for the last several years. Canned tuna, salmon, tilapia and Alaska pollock rounded out the top five list of most popular species. Trailing pollock were pangasius (or so-called imported catfish), crab, cod (basically tied with crab), catfish and clams to complete the top 10 list.

Aquaculture Production
U.S. aquaculture production dropped significantly in 2011 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), after just one year of modest growth preceded by three straight years of decline.

Total production in 2011 was roughly 611 million pounds, versus 753 million pounds for the previous year. Catfish production took the biggest hit, dropping from 479 million pounds to just 348 million pounds—about half of the 2004 output when production exceeded 630 million pounds.

Salmon production also dipped slightly from 43 million to 41 million pounds. Production of most other popular farm-raised species, including striped bass, tilapia, trout and clams, was essentially flat or slightly down.

The news in U.S. aquaculture was not all bad, however. Total value of U.S. aquaculture production was $1.3 billion in 2011, topping the 1 billion mark for the eighth consecutive year and rising slightly over 2010 values.

The Look Ahead
The further decline in per capita seafood consumption here in the U.S. has many in the industry worrying and scratching their heads for answers.

Since the majority of American consumers continue to view seafood as a luxury and not a center-of-the-plate protein, it was not surprising when seafood demand, and accompanying prices to producers, dipped during the prolonged recession.

Now, even the experts are stumped. Some suggest that consumers are being put off and confused by the ongoing wild-versus-farmed debate and the many questions raised in the media surrounding the healthiness and safety of some imported seafoods. As a result, they are just not buying seafood. Period.

Others say this per capita erosion is just a function of a slowdown in U.S. population growth and that long-range growth is inevitable.

Whatever the case, both U.S. commercial fishermen and domestic fish farmers would agree that finding a way to boost consumer demand is crucial. With more demand comes better prices paid to the harvesting sector, while creating a more positive environment for stepping up production wherever possible.

Will that begin to happen in 2014? That is a question a lot of people are asking.

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