Salmon defied negative seafood trends in 2023 with high prices and solid sales

Amid inflation and lower category sales, salmon maintained its popularity
A chef cutting a fillet of salmon
A chef cuts a fillet of salmon | Courtesy of In Green/Shutterstock
8 Min

The U.S. seafood category as a whole experienced harsh inflationary pressure in 2023 that pushed consumers toward alternatives like chicken, pork, and beef.

Data from consumer behavior analysis firm Circana showed that for the full 52 weeks of 2023, across fresh and frozen finfish and shellfish, almost all major seafood species experienced a slump in sales. Sales of frozen shrimp declined 8 percent by value in 2023, while frozen pollock sales declined 3.2 percent by value, fresh cod dropped 10.4 percent, and fresh shrimp dropped 12.7 percent in value year over year.

As most of the industry struggled with the declining demand, salmon continued to grow in popularity, even in the face of high prices.

Frozen salmon spending in the U.S. grew 3.3 percent year over year to over USD 672 million (EUR 618 million), while fresh salmon saw a minor 0.9 percent reduction in spending to USD 2.69 billion (EUR 2.47 billion) – a bright spot in an otherwise poor year for finfish.

Frozen salmon was also one of the few species in the frozen seafood category that managed to maintain positive growth in sales throughout much of 2023, marking a stark contrast to shrimp, which has long ranked as America’s most popular seafood item.

“Shrimp is kind of having a bit of a struggle,” Circana Principal and Team Lead Melissa Rodriguez said.

Salmon’s growth came despite the highest prices in history for certain product categories.

Last year’s salmon prices were consistently elevated and, in the first half of the year, soared to record highs. The price of head-on gutted Atlantic salmon from Norway reached NOK 127.28 (then USD 12.14, EUR 11.25) in March and hovered around that price point for weeks. Regardless, U.S. consumption didn’t decline, boosting Norway’s seafood export value to new heights. Norwegian salmon prices remained above NOK 114 (USD 11, EUR 10) at the beginning of 2024.

Salmon’s positive momentum is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, according to Rabobank, which predicted the species will find a “new normal” in terms of supply and may even see supply growth as global fishmeal inventories improve.

Elsewhere in 2023, fishmeal supplies were constrained as El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean contributed to the closure of Peru’s key anchovy fishing season.

Peru’s anchovy fishery is the world’s largest by volume and supplies a significant portion of the raw material used in global fishmeal production, which, in turn, provides essential ingredients to the world’s salmon-farming industry.

In a January 2024 report, Rabobank predicted as El Niño conditions weaken, the anchovy fishery will recover and fishmeal production will recover with it.

“Normalizing salmon supply and likely better fishmeal and fish oil production will soften prices in 2024 but only marginally, establishing a new higher price norm,” Rabobank Senior Global Seafood Specialist Gorjan Nikolik said.

Most major salmon-producing regions, Rabobank predicts, will be in “growth mode” in the first half of 2024 and see increases in production.

Rabobank predicted positive “but low” growth in the supply of salmon in 2024 and that the sector will again be the most profitable segment of the seafood industry in the first half of 2024.

The financial services company also prognosticated that as supplies normalize, the price of salmon will become more competitive with other proteins – which will only add to its success. However, the prices will only ease “mildly” with the improved supply, meaning if sales continue, salmon will once again pull in high value.

So, how did salmon, in the face of inflationary pressure that is pushing down sales of almost every other seafood species, manage to keep growing even as prices for the fish increased?

Rodriguez said there’s a few factors that could explain the phenomenon. One big factor is its ease of preparation and the familiarity U.S. consumers have with it. Sales of pre-packaged skinpacks of salmon that come with a marinade have seen big growth as consumers gravitate toward easy-to-prepare meals.

“The less prep work that a consumer has to do, the more likely they are to buy something,” Rodriguez said.

A piece of pre-marinated salmon that can be quickly thrown in an oven and turned into a meal has broad appeal, driving sales growth in both the baby boomer and millennial demographics.

“[It] is rare that you see growth on both. Usually you either have an older consumer or a younger consumer, and that’s not necessarily the case [with salmon],” Rodriguez said.

Consumers know how to cook salmon, and the fish is also showing up with popular social media trends, Rodriguez said.

“There’s just been a tremendous amount of salmon awareness across social media; that sounds ridiculous, but it’s true,” Rodriguez said. “Salmon in an air fryer is trending on TikTok.”

Short TikTok videos of popular content creators throwing a piece of salmon on rice with some sort of vegetable as a side have generated lots of traction and engagement on the platform, driving sales among younger consumers.

According to Rodriguez, rising inflation has, perhaps counterintuitively, boosted salmon sales. Consumers are tightening their purse strings, and one of the first things to go in terms of food spending is eating out and trying new, premium species, she said.

“When people have more disposable income, for all the reasons we know to be true, they are willing to play around and spend money on things,” Rodriguez said.

As inflation began to take hold and prices drove consumers toward more value-based decision-making, taking a chance on a new species of fish or beef went out the window, according to Rodriguez.

“You’re not going to spend USD 20 [EUR 18.42] on a piece of fish and potentially ruin it,” she said.

Furthermore, Atlantic salmon remains a staple on many restaurant menus. Rodriguez said some colleagues who deal with big restaurant chains told her it’s essential for them to specifically have Atlantic salmon on the menu because people are familiar with it and know what they’re getting.

“With the sheer mention of salmon, people just have a better grasp and understanding that it is a species they want,” she said.

Salmon is also benefiting from other trends, like the rise in popularity of grocery store sushi, which typically features salmon front and center.

Rodriguez said that in 2024, salmon can continue to maintain its category dominance, so long as the industry keeps promoting the species, focusing on pre-packaged skinpacks and engaging proactively with consumers.

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