Seafood consumption in the United States continued its seven-year decline, according to the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood industry trade association, but the effect on restaurants might be limited.
Citing data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NFI reported that Americans on average ate 14.6 pounds of seafood in 2012, down from 16.5 pounds in 2006 — a drop of nearly 14 percent per person.
Most of that decline has occurred since the economic collapse of 2008, according to the NOAA data, which showed fairly stable per capita consumption from 2003 to 2007, ranging from 16.2 pounds to 16.6 pounds. It dropped to 16 pounds in 2008 and by 2011 was down to 15 pounds.
An NFI spokesman had no explanation of the decline.
“It’s definitely cost,” said James Wright, senior editor of Seafood Business, which reports on the industry for seafood buyers and sellers. “We’re in the land of the dollar meal. There’s not a lot of seafood that fits into that price scenario.”
One exception is pangasius, also known as swai, a mild-flavored white fish farm-raised in Southeast Asia. The fish only entered the top 10 list in 2009 and by 2011 passed crab consumption to be the sixth most widely eaten seafood in the country, behind Alaska pollock, which in that time has fallen in consumption by almost 20 percent, from 1.45 pounds to 1.17 pounds per person.
In 2012, Americans ate 0.73 pounds of pangasius per person, an increase of 105 percent since 2009. Much of that gain has come at the expense of catfish, which Wright said is substantially more costly than pangasius. Catfish consumption has fallen by 40 percent in the past five years to half a pound per person.
Consumption of tilapia, another farm-raised seafood, but one with better name recognition, rose 22 percent over the past five years. In 2012, tilapia passed Alaska pollock to be the fourth most consumed seafood.
Shrimp, canned tuna and salmon remain the most popular seafood.
“As a , to see the numbers showing a steady decline in seafood consumption is disconcerting,” said Bryce Shuman, executive chef of Betony restaurant in New York. “The ocean offers such a wide variety of precious delicacies, and it would be a shame to see them overlooked by the public.”
But much of that consumption decline seems to be at home, as many restaurants report an increase in the popularity of seafood.
“I actually see a huge increase in both fish and vegetable consumption in the restaurant world,” said David Santos, chef of Louro in New York City. “However, I think that people are eating far less fish at home and that is the cause for the drop-off. Meats tend to be more forgiving and easier to cook than fish. So in these days of cost-effective living, people are definitely more prone to buying that pork loin or that chicken than say, that wonderful local wild striped bass. People know how to cook chicken or pork and beef.”
He said he thinks consumers’ fear of ruining a fish has contributed to the increase in fish sales at Louro. “When our guests come in and see something fun and inventive with fish that they know that can’t do at home, they gravitate to it.”
Ian MacGregor, chief executive of The Lobster Place, a seafood market in New York City, and its attached restaurant, Cull & Pistol, said business is great. “We don’t see any trends of decreased seafood consumption. Business is very good for us.”
He did note that prices of many popular seafood items are on the rise. For example, the northern European farm-raised salmon that he buys is about a third more expensive than it was last year. Shrimp, lobster, cod and scallop prices have also increased.
“But as a percentage of all the seafood consumed in the United States, these things are just a drop in the bucket,” he observed, noting that less expensive varieties of farm-raised salmon, as well as tilapia and “the stuff they’re making fish sticks out of,” make up the bulk of the domestic seafood market.
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