By Scott Etzel, Agribusiness Consultant
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Higher prices and reduced seafood supply have taken a toll on U.S. per capita fish consumption, according to National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) figures released in late October. NMFS data reveals that overall per capita consumption of fish and shellfish fell from 15.0 lbs. in 2011 to 14.4 lbs. in 2012. This is the lowest level in more than 20 years. The graph below shows U.S. per capita seafood consumption since 2000.
U.S. seafood consumption, 2000-2012
The only bright spot for the seafood industry in the report was that consumption of fresh and frozen fish fillets climbed 12%, the highest it has been since 1984, up to 5.6 lbs. per capita. This is driven by increased consumption of pollock, pangasius, salmon, and cod. However, the fall-off in frozen shrimp more than offsets the gains in fish fillets.
The chart below shows U.S. per capita consumption for the top 10 types of seafood (which account for 80% of all U.S. seafood consumption) in 2003 and 2012. Tuna, pollock, and catfish have experienced the largest declines, while consumption of tilapia and pangasius (basa or tra) has increased severalfold.
U.S. per capita seafood consumption in pounds
The reason for the drop in consumption is also due to fewer fish landed domestically. NMFS says that imports increased by 16.9 million lbs., but this was offset by a drop in the total calculated supply of 539 million lbs., along with an increase in the U.S. population. However, shrimp and tuna are both primarily imported products, and accounted for the bulk of the drop in consumption. Volume was made up with other imported species.
The following chart reveals consumption trends for key seafood species over the past 10 years. Except for tuna, which declined sharply, consumption of most items has been relatively stable. The whitefish category includes cod, pollock, tilapia, pangasius, and domestic catfish. Combined, consumption of these items increased 6.2% in 2012, while shrimp fell 9.5%. As a result, whitefish as a category now is higher than shrimp for U.S. per capita consumption. The growth in whitefish is driven by tilapia and pangasius. Cod saw a small increase, while pollock and domestic catfish declined. Cod growth should continue in 2013, as it will be attractively priced compared to other seafoods.
U.S. seafood consumption by species
Source: National Marine Fisheries Service
Salmon consumption rose 3.5%, but as seen in the above graphic, at around 2 lbs. per capita, it is almost exactly where it was in 2001. 2012 was an off year for pink salmon, and so Alaska's catches fell. Salmon consumption increased due to strong demand for farmed Atlantics.
There are two key factors behind the decline in seafood consumption in 2012:
  • Total U.S. domestic landings declined by 100,000 tons or 2% from 2011
    • This was largely due to a decline in Alaskan salmon landings.
    • Shrimp and tuna, the primary imported seafoods, declined, but overall imports increased slightly due to strong increases in tilapia and pangasius imports.
    • The overall decline, combined with increase in population, resulted in the lower per capita consumption.
  • Increased seafood prices relative to competing proteins also contributed to the consumption decline.
    • Through September 2013, the seafood Consumer Price Index (CPI) has increased 11.6% since 2010 when the recession ended.
    • Due to production declines in farmed shrimp and salmon, prices for both items have increased by more than 20% in 2013 alone.
    • Given the accelerated price increases and volume declines in these two key seafoods, consumption will likely decline in 2013.
The chart below shows the seafood price index has not increased by as much as the poultry and beef indices. Based on the index, seafood is at a price disadvantage to competing proteins. With expected lower corn prices in 2013-2014, consumer prices for pork, poultry, and beef could decline relative to seafood.
CPI trends in protein segment
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
For our domestic fishing and processing customers, U.S. supplies of ocean-caught fish and shellfish are being managed by NMFS for long-term sustainability. Overall, the small decline in landings for 2012 is not significant. U.S. seafood landings have been strong and demand in both the domestic and international markets has been healthy. This is largely the result of a three-decade long effort by NMFS to end overfishing in the U.S. As a result, U.S. fisheries are now some of the most responsibly managed and sustainable fisheries in the world.
Scott Etzel
Scott Etzel is a Wells Fargo Agribusiness Consultant focused on food, seafood and fiber processors.
Scott joined the Wells Fargo in 1987 and has continually worked in the Agricultural Industries Department excepting the 2-year period from 1994 - 1996, during which time he was employed as Director of Environmental Affairs for the Northwest Food Processors Association, a trade group representing food processing firms located in the Pacific Northwest. Prior to joining Wells Fargo, Scott was employed as the Director of Scientific and Technical Affairs with the Northwest Food Processors Association.
Scott holds a B.S. degree in Food Science and Technology from Oregon State University.

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Wells Fargo Agricultural Industries presents this analysis as a complimentary service to its employees and customers. It cannot guarantee the accuracy of all the sources of data. And, commodity prices are extremely volatile based on unforeseeable changes. These estimates will change with all new market changes.