Top 10 seafood stories of 2010 – North America

Another year is just about in the books. Time to take a quick look back at 10 storylines that had the most impact on the North American seafood market in 2010, for good or bad.

10) Texas businessman Tilman Fertitta may have established himself as the top dealmaker in the restaurant business. In October, Fertitta officially became the sole owner of Landry’s Restaurants and its portfolio of 50-plus restaurant banners. Landry’s scooped up three chains last year — The Oceanaire Seafood Room, Claim Jumper and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. — and Fertitta upped his stake in McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurants. He’s now the largest single shareholder, at approximately 10 percent — more than anyone named McCormick or Schmick. The confident Fertitta is the subject of “Top Gun,” the Top Story in the January issue of SeaFood Business, which will hit mailboxes soon.

9) It was a key year in the race for aquaculture eco-label supremacy. At the Seafood Summit in Paris in January, the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Aquaculture Dialogues and the Global Aquaculture Alliance showed their competitive sides during a revealing debate. The November Top Story of SeaFood Business picked up where the two groups left off, and found both of them in good position to serve seafood buyers around the world. The GAA has a well-established market presence and dozens of big-retail endorsements, while four of the Aquaculture Dialogues’ targeted eight species-specific standards are now complete, meaning the Aquaculture Stewardship Council should hit the ground running sometime in 2011 when it becomes fully operational. If you hope to understand eco-labeled farmed seafood, these are the top two organizations to pay attention to.

8) Seafood fraud has lurked in the shadows for years, but no longer. DNA tests have exposed widespread species substitution at the foodservice level, with sushi restaurants a particularly vulnerable target. And retailers, many who’ve begrudgingly accepted seafood shrink due to either improper labeling or excessive ice glazing, became a target when 17 state weights-and-measures departments cracked down on the practice that simply bilks consumers. Had it up to here with cheating? Then look for a SeafoodSource what-to-look-for webinar on cheating in the coming weeks as well as a conference at the 2011 International Boston Seafood Show, “Truth in Tare,” which I’ll be moderating.

7) What a weird stretch it’s been for Alaska pollock. A few years of declining quotas and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program demotes the fish from best choice to good alternative, while noting the fishery’s “progressive” management. Speaking of which, just two weeks ago, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council upped the 2011 Alaska pollock quota to 1.25 million metric tons, a huge 54 percent increase from the previous year. Days later, Alaska pollock was re-certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a program that recognizes sound fishery management. So, yeah, about that sustainability rating.

6) Target, the United States’ second-largest retailer, in February eliminated all farmed salmon products from its 1,744 stores, committing solely to wild Alaska salmon. The chain isn’t known for its seafood sales, but its decision made big headlines and some industry followers, myself included, thought a chain reaction would ensue. From what we can tell, that has not happened, which is good news for places like Norway, which has ably filled a major supply gap left by Chile, where production is still hampered by infectious salmon anemia.

5) Back in March, member nations of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) gathered in Doha, Qatar, and ultimately rejected a proposal to ban the international trade of Atlantic bluefin tuna. The highly migratory species, environmental organizations say, is teetering on the brink of extinction due to humans’ insatiable appetite for its ruby red, fatty flesh. Japan, which accounts for the bulk of global bluefin tuna consumption, said it would have taken a reservation on a trade ban, if one should pass. The latest round of quota talks through the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas didn’t yield as drastic a cut as groups like WWF had wanted. The Center for Biological Diversity of Tucson, Ariz., is now leading a campaign to keep the fish off of menus in the United States; it’s reminiscent of the “Give Swordfish a Break” movement of a decade ago.

4) Newsflash: Mother Nature is rather unpredictable (see No. 7 on this list). After years of dismal sockeye salmon returns to the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada, the fishery experienced an unexpected, perhaps incredible, bounce this past summer. The controversial fishery, which obtained MSC certification against the protestations of multiple environmental groups, provided us some evidence that fisheries management is not an exact science and that nature has plenty of surprises. But the heat is still on: Was the 2010 bounty an anomaly or a harbinger of things to come?

3) No seafood product made more news in 2010 than a product that isn’t even on the market, and won’t be for at least the next three years or more. Genetically modified (GM) salmon developed by Waltham, Mass., biotechnology firm AquaBounty Technologies was up for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval this fall. The product’s greatest benefit is its grow-out period, which is about half that of conventional farmed salmon. The public outcry over incomplete data as FDA officials met to determine AquAdvantage salmon’s fate led to an indeterminate delay. GM salmon could be a tool to help feed the world. It could also lead to unforeseen problems. No account better summed up this fascinating issue better than Stuart Hirsch’s “Super Salmon?” feature that appeared in the December issue of SeaFood Business. Another must-read: Industry veteran John Filose’s take on the issue.

2) Anybody in this business will tell you that as restaurants go, so goes seafood. Foodservice historically accounts for roughly two-thirds of all seafood consumed in the United States, so the economic downturn that kept people at home didn’t help. However, a recovery is in progress and some would say well on its way. Chicago consulting firm Technomic has issued several reports indicating an uptick in the industry’s overall health and anecdotal reports to SeafoodSource and SeaFood Business show that restaurant traffic is improved, as has the overall outlook. It would’ve been really nice to put this promising trend in the top spot, but…

1) No. 1 on the list might be the biggest food story in recent memory. For much of the spring and summer months, we helplessly watched “Spillcam” as millions and millions of gallons of crude oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig operated by BP exploded southeast of New Orleans, killing 11 workers and spurring one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of the United States. The effects of the spill will be felt for a long time; Gulf oyster, shrimp and crab supplies were impacted, but not nearly as bad as the public’s perception of their safety and wholesomeness as fishing grounds slowly reopened. As some proud businesses get back on their feet, they must contend with a tentative marketplace and a lot of conflicting information. President Obama’s efforts to keep Gulf seafood in the news (and in his belly) should be commended, but the overall response to the disaster understandably left a sour taste in many people’s mouths. My heart goes out to the people of the Gulf Coast who, after picking themselves up after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, once again have to stare tragedy in the face — and survive.

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