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Wednesday, June 30, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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No Fish Tale: U.S. Seafood Trade Deficit Is A Whopper

AP

PACIFIC NORTHWEST salmon, Maryland crabcakes and other `regional specialties' at restaurants are more and more likely to be imported.

HONOLULU - At America's largest seafood restaurant chain, that red lobster probably comes from the Bahamas or Brazil.

That shrimp cocktail? Thailand. Those crab legs? Canada.

Red Lobster restaurants depend on foreign fishermen to feed its 130 million annual customers.

That's because U.S. fishermen can't meet the domestic demand for certain species and the strong dollar makes foreign fish less expensive.

"It's really become such a global market," said Andrew Dun, marketing director for the 669-outlet chain. "There just isn't enough here to meet our needs. You have to go where the supply is."

Last year, more than ever, that supply was in foreign seas and foreign fish farms.

The United States imported nearly four times more seafood than it exported last year, running up a record $5.88 billion trade deficit, according to Seafood Market Analyst.

That deficit is 16 percent, or $800 million, larger than 1997 and marks at least the 28th consecutive deficit in the seafood trade.

The fish shortage is so prevalent that restaurant customers ordering regional specialties - lobster and cod in New England, crab cakes in Maryland and salmon in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska - likely are served imports from Canada, Iceland, Venezuela and Chile, respectively.

"These days in mainstream restaurants, probably more than half of the fish on the menu is going to be imported," said James Anderson, editor of SMA's Seafood Trade Reports.

"It's definitely the biggest food category. We import more fish than we do coffee and alcohol put together."

The United States imported more than $8 billion in seafood in 1998, mostly from Canada, Thailand and China. That is 6 percent more than 1997 and the highest amount this decade.

Only Japan imports more seafood.

The top imports - by value - were shrimp and prawns at a combined $3.1 billion. Most of that came frozen from Mexico and Thailand.

Meanwhile, U.S. seafood exports dropped 17 percent last year to almost $2.2 billion, the lowest amount this decade.

The top individual exports were frozen Alaska minced pollock at $167 million and lobster at $160 million.

The top collective export was salmon products at about $360 million.

The primary destinations for U.S. fish were Japan, Canada and China, although exports to Japan were down 30 percent and to China 39 percent.

The trade gap is widening because Asia's economic slump makes U.S. fish more expensive; U.S. fishermen aren't catching enough popular entrees like Alaska sockeye salmon and New England cod and flounder; and the U.S. fleet can't produce the right products at the right time at the right price for U.S. consumers, Anderson said.

"Year-round, high-quality, fresh, farmed salmon from places like Chile, Canada, Norway and Scotland outcompetes the seasonal, mostly frozen, and often poorly handled salmon from Alaska," said Anderson, a visiting professor at the College of William and Mary.

The growing trade deficit is not bad in itself - cheaper imports mean better prices for U.S. consumers. But there are ripples beyond the dinner plate.

For example, the handling and production practices in foreign countries may not be up to U.S. standards.

"Seafood eaters should be aware that fisheries-management practices in foreign countries may not be sustainable and that the U.S. demand, in some cases, is contributing to environmental degradation," Anderson said.

A few years ago, Red Lobster was accused of buying Honduran lobster from suppliers who abused divers and bleached coral reefs to force the crustaceans out of hiding. Red Lobster denied that.

Dun said recently that the chain has an office in Singapore making sure its seafood purchases are harvested responsibly.

"Our quality standards for our seafood apply globally," he said from the chain's Orlando headquarters.

Because of the environmental and transportation problems often associated with foreign fish, many restaurants build their menus around locally farmed fish.

"As long as it's delicious, who cares?" said Patrick O'Connell, chef at the upscale The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va. "I'd rather have an impeccably fresh, farm-raised fish than a wild fish that's been sitting around an airport for three days."

O'Connell's fixed-price menu, which can run up to $128 a person, includes farmed rockfish and trout.

Hawaii restaurants are at an advantage because the islands are surrounded by prime fishing grounds. Local menus usually feature ahi, ono and opah bought fresh at the local auction every morning.

"We can go down to the piers and pick up whatever we need," said John Lapenes, a manager at Sam Choy's Breakfast, Lunch & Crab in Honolulu.

The only foreigner making Sam Choy's menu is the occasional snapper from New Zealand.

Even the Red Lobster in Waikiki offers local fish like mahi-mahi and opakapaka, in keeping with the chain's national strategy. Restaurants on the East Coast offer haddock and those in the Chesapeake Bay region offer crab cakes, Dun said.

"The key word is sustainable," Dun said. "Where there are sustainable domestic supplies, we'll buy them."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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