SEATTLE (FNS) -- Growing demand for a hard-to-get product appears to be fueling the recent boost in prices for wild salmon. Yet the impact may be short-lived, seafood industry sources told SN.
In recent years, marketers and restaurants have raised consumer awareness -- and whet their appetite -- for wild salmon. At the same time, consumers have seen the media accounts indicating farmed salmon may contain more contaminants than wild product. Together, those factors have boosted demand for the wild-caught fish.
There is no argument that in early spring, wild-caught salmon prices are high.
"There is little product in the market right now," explained Laura Fleming, public relations director, Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, Juneau. "Currently, there are some troll-caught Kings on the market, and more Kings are expected this year than last. But with well under half a million Kings expected to be landed this season, it is a small percentage of the overall salmon catch."
Around the country, retailers are gearing up to promote wild-caught salmon.
During the upcoming Copper River run, John Pardington, owner of the Detroit-area Holiday Market, expects to move between 800 and 1,000 pounds of the salmon per week. The stores publicize the arrival of the Copper River salmon to increase consumer awareness.
"It's like tomatoes from the backyard," Pardington said. "When the season's right, you eat all you can get. Copper River salmon is an exciting and different quality item.
"Our customers would prefer to have wild always," he added. "But we have to use farmed in the winter. In the off season, we include every farmed salmon there is on the market: Atlantic, Norwegian and Scottish. Then when the season starts around mid-May, we cut back on our farmed salmon and run with the wild, putting as good a price on it as we can."
Wild or farmed, salmon has enormous appeal. Consumers want to eat it year round. For that reason, the majority of salmon sold at Costco Wholesale comes from farms, an official with the national warehouse club chain told SN.
"We carry predominantly farm-raised salmon, and wild-caught when the runs start," said Jeff Lyons, vice president of fresh foods, Costco, Issaquah, Wash. "There is a desire for the wild-caught fish. Consumers like that aspect. They also like the opportunity to buy fresh salmon year round, and that's where farmed salmon meets our criteria. Consumers want a quality, wholesome product."
Upscale chains seem to experience the greatest demand for wild product. Officials at Andronico's Markets, Emeryville, Calif., have found that, through sourcing, they can have their wild salmon 12 months out of the year.
"There is far more demand for wild than farmed," said Marc Kane, vice president, meat and seafood. "The demand is so strong, we have tried to eliminate farmed salmon from all our lines, including smoked product and fresh private label."
Kane has developed a source in order to keep wild-caught salmon in his 10 units all year round. A local fisherman provides the chain with frozen-at-sea products that meet Andronico's specifications.
"The benefit of the shift has been that we have not dropped a pound of sales," he said, estimating 86,000 pounds of salmon sales in seven months. "Salmon is our bread and butter.
"Pricing-wise, we have kept it where we need it," Kane said. "All the proteins are up. We are not making huge margins, and we have moved the retail price up a bit, but there have been no complaints on quality or price."
In the Alaska fishery, late May is the start of the salmon harvest. The amount peaks in July with Sockeye. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game projects 196 million salmon caught during the 2004 season, up from 173 million in 2003.
"Consumers are more educated and appreciate different products," said Fleming. "Retail seafood departments showcase how important variety is. As consumers' palates have become more receptive to different flavors, there is a natural shift to wild-caught salmon. Wild salmon have a robust flavor and firm texture. Their selection process is all about the flavor each species has. Consumers simply want good-tasting fish."
This season, demand and interest in wild salmon have reached new levels, an industry observer noted.
"For this season, the question is whether there is enough good-quality salmon," said Howard Johnson, a seafood industry consultant based in Jacksonville, Ore. "In the short-term, the price of wild has run up faster than farmed. There has been a lot of promotion with the trade. The negative publicity of farmed salmon all converge to drive a short-term demand, plus the new quality standard Alaska is using is creating a buzz."
The quality standard comes from the London-based Marine Stewardship Council. Alaska salmon became eligible for certification in 2000. California troll-caught King and salmon from British Columbia are currently in the process of assessment.
Basically, the MSC provides a structure for an environmental standard. An accredited certifier sends out scientists to evaluate the status of the stock, examine the effect fishing has on an eco-system, and test the effectiveness of the fishery's management. Once certified, an eco-label is issued.
"This process is good for retailers," said Karen Tarica, communications director for MSC. "In particular, it is attractive for those retailers with natural and organic sections and those who are embracing the sustainable seafood movement. There is also an added benefit, a trace-back system that ensures quality."
Currently, Whole Foods Market stores, Wegmans Food Markets and Wild Oats Community Markets are merchandising Alaska salmon with the eco-label. It is more common in Europe where Marks & Spencer, J Sainsbury, Tesco and Asda are displaying the label on products.