Lent, the 40-day period before Easter that begins on March 5 this year, is a period of reflection and repentance for some, and also a time of increased seafood sales for the restaurant industry.

“It’s a significant business opportunity, I think, for all chains,” said Brad Haley, chief marketing officer of CKE Restaurants Holdings Inc., the parent company of quick-service restaurants Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, which rolled out fish specials for the season.

About 24 percent of the U.S. population is Roman Catholic, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, and about 60 percent of Roman Catholic people follow rules about avoiding meat on Fridays during Lent, according to a 2008 poll by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. That means more than 14 percent of Americans avoid meat during the seven Fridays of Lent.

Those numbers give significant tailwind to seafood marketing endeavors, said Dick Lynch, chief global brand officer of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen Inc.

“Seafood just dominates the food industry right now as Lent approaches, not only in QSR but in consumer packaged goods as well,” he said, noting how ads from fish-stick companies and others dominate media at this time of year. “It’s hard to say how much is Catholics avoiding meat and how much is people watching TV and saying, ‘Hey, that looks pretty good,’” Lynch said.

Online restaurant ordering company GrubHub reported at the end of Lent last year that seafood orders in its system rose between 5 percent and 10 percent during the period, depending on the location, with particular spikes in heavily Catholic cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago. Meatless orders on Fridays during Lent were 20 percent higher than just two years earlier, the company pointed out.

Panda Express said that last year it saw a “significant” increase in seafood sales on Fridays during Lent, although it wouldn’t give a specific figure.

Dave Wallinga, Panda’s vice president of marketing, said Lenten promotions fit well into the chain’s LTO schedule, which starts each year with Chinese New Year in late January or February. The next logical LTO period is near Lent, so the chain makes sure it’s a seafood item. Usually that’s shrimp, but this year it’s fish.

Golden Szechuan Fish is the chain’s first ever systemwide fish offering, Wallinga said. The item features battered cod fillets with sugar snap peas and red bell peppers wok-tossed in a soy-based sauce with Chinese spices and chile flakes.

Wallinga said Lenten offerings allow the chain to maintain a variety of different proteins on its buffet, but it’s also a nod to the chain’s mostly Catholic Latino guests — “a very important segment of our consumer profile,” he noted. “It just seems to make sense to offer an entrée that serves them during this time of year.”

Haley of CKE said the seasonal seafood preference is noticeable. “There’s a lot of advertising against fish that happens at this time of year, and I think whether you’re Catholic or not, it’s a seasonal thing to do,” he said.