By DAN CATCHPOLE
SEATTLE - Bidders walk deliberately among trays of small, lung-shaped sacs of fish eggs. The room is white from floor to ceiling, setting off the bright red roe sacs. Constantly humming air filters keep fishy odors at bay.
Scanning each tray, Akiro Miura picked up a pair of sacs, studied their color and gently squeezed them to check their firmness. Hundreds of millions of dollars trade hands during the brief pollock roe auctions here, and Miura was accordingly judicious.
Fresh pollock roe feels like spongy cake. Less fresh roe is squishier. Miura turned the sacs over in his hand, looking for veins that would hurt the retail value. The sacs were the highest grade - called mako. With a few swift mental calculations, he assessed the value of the eggs and made a note on a bid sheet.
Miura was one of dozens of buyers from Japan and Korea bidding on pollock roe, which is a delicacy in those countries. During two main auctions in Seattle, they buy around $400 million worth of the little, red eggs.
Miura planned to spend between $5-$10 million on 200-300 tons.
Reprocessed pollock roe has been a mainstay in Japanese and Korean cuisine for decades, and even lent its name to a Japanese pop rock movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s - "mentai rock." The Japanese name for the processed roe is "mentaiko," a combination of the Korean word for pollock - "myeong" - and the Japanese word for children - "ko."
Mentaiko is either spicy or salty, but each re-processor puts its own special twist on its product.
Pollock roe can be cooked into a dish, such as pasta or an omelet, or used sparingly as a garnish on everything from noodles to risotto to hand-rolled sushi.
"Pollock roe is a luxury item, so overall demand might be declining because of the overall economic slump. But we're not sure," Miura said.
While pollock roe is expensive, pollock itself is a cheap whitefish used for frozen fillets and imitation crab. Most of it comes from the Bering Sea off Alaska, the largest whitefish fishery in the world, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. In 2006, 3.4 billion pounds of pollock were caught off Alaska.
The Seattle auctions dominate the pollock roe wholesale world, and are expected to move around 60,000 tons of roe this year, according to John Sackton, editor of Seafood.com News. The smaller Korean auctions, which sell pollock from the Russian fishery, are expected to move 20,000 tons.
Like other buyers, Miura worked in silence, keeping his notes out of sight from competitors. Most buyers work for a reprocessing company in Japan or Korea, but some, like Miura, represent several smaller companies.
Color is key to a buyer's bid. Lighter red pollock roe is the best - and most expensive. It is the right level of maturity and freshness, and needs the least re-processing. Older roe is darker, and needs more seasoning to cover up its older flavor.
Some buyers put paint chips down beside the sacs and take photos, which are sent to bosses in Japan or Korea, who send back bidding instructions. Some buyers, such as Miura, brine samples overnight to see how the roe will handle reprocessing.
Prices were up at this year's auctions in Seattle because the National Marine Fisheries Service had lowered the total allowed catch for pollock. The allowed catch is expected to stay down next year as well.
The estimated pollock population in the Bering Sea has declined from record levels five years ago, but the stock is considered healthy and not overfished, said Jim Ianelli, with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, who helps set the catch limits.
Greenpeace and other environmental groups have criticized the catch quotas as leaving too little room for mistakes.
Alaskan pollock is the largest single source of food in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, and a population collapse could have catastrophic results for other species. Populations of several species that prey on pollock have declined in recent years, said John Hovecar, Greenpeace's oceans' specialist.
In the end Miura did not buy any pollock roe in Seattle. Prices were too high for his clients.
"We have to make money, so that means we do not want to overpay for the quality. We have to bid competitively," said Miura, who hopes to buy Russian-caught roe from auctions in Korea at lower prices.