Are Americans warming up to live seafood?
The live seafood market is exploding in stores across the United States as an influx of Asian customers has changed the landscape of traditional seafood retailing. While many Americans are still leery of buying live fish and shellfish from tanks, more consumers want to pick out the still-wriggling seafood themselves.
“It has grown by leaps and bounds with the changing demographics in the country. A lot of Asians are coming in, particularly Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai,” says Haroon Chaudhri, director of live and fresh sales for Turners Falls, Mass.-based Australis Aquaculture. Australis supplies around 25,000 pounds of live barramundi (which Asian customers refer to as sea bass) weekly to retailers — primarily Asian markets.
A New Jersey Department of Agriculture survey about the live seafood market in the Northeast conducted in 2005 indicated the category’s growth. On average, shoppers visited stores that carried live fish 6.2 times per month and spent $14.80 on live seafood per visit. The majority of these shoppers were Chinese (79 percent) and English was not their primary language.
The increased sales of live fish in recent years is partly due to the immigration of higher-income Chinese into the country, says Chaudhri.
“There is an astronomical demand, and they will pay the money. They like to pick it out themselves — like at stores in Chinatown where king crab goes for $40 or $50 a pound,” he adds.
For many Chinese people, live fish indicates health and good luck, explains Chaudhri.
“They want to see the eyes, the gills and the heart beating. If they cannot get live, then they will buy frozen because certain species cannot be brought into the country live,” he says. Shoppers surveyed in the New Jersey study said quality and freshness are the top reasons they buy live seafood, followed by tradition.