New Seafood Products Reaching the Market

Times Staff Writer

Recent advances in technology have inundated the seafood industry with new and different fishery products.

The changes were evident at Seafare '89, a trade show held last week at the Long Beach Convention Center.

Much of the progress is resulting from aquaculture, or fish farming, now well established in more than a dozen countries.

Underscoring the success of these ventures, industry observers said, was the announcement at the conference that Norwegian salmon farms will produce 100,000 metric tons of the prized fish in 1990, or 25% above this year's level.

The increase comes at the same time that the Norwegian government indicated it plans no direct subsidies for the fish farmers, a development, along with the production increases, that's likely to reduce the cost of their high-quality product on the world market.

The Norwegians are far and away the leaders in salmon ranching, with more than half the world's total. But other nations are expected to increase their production of the fish as well, particularly those firms in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

The cumulative effect of these efforts, including those that simply release hatched salmon into the sea, has pushed total tonnage of aquacultured salmon to equal that of the ocean- and river-harvested, or wild, varieties.

In fact, the number of farmed salmon has proliferated to such an extent that Seafood Leader magazine, the convention sponsor, held an official tasting of product from nine countries.

These and other changes in the seafood industry brought 12,000 people to the three-day trade show, which featured seminars and 600 exhibits.

Other highlights of the event included the debut of an edible, tropical seaweed, giant Australian farmed crayfish and the reintroduction of hoki, an exotic-sounding New Zealand whitefish.

Somewhat afield of fish farming, but still compatible with those firms racing to cultivate foodstuffs from the ocean, is a Honolulu-based company that is raising a popular seaweed variety used by Hawaiians and other South Pacific islanders.

Richard Spencer, of Hawaiian Marine Enterprise, said he began cultivating the intricate bunches of red, sphere-like clusters six years ago as the natural supplies were depleted by over-harvesting. "Most people view seaweed as soft, slimy and heavy in flavor," he said.

Sea vegetable, as Spencer's product is labeled, is crisp in texture, flavored somewhere between celery, cabbage and green onion, with a salty aftertaste. However, the salty taste, a condition of seawater, can be removed by rinsing, he said.

In Hawaii the seaweed, or gracilaria in Latin, is quite common. It is used as a pickled vegetable, in salads, as a garnish or in a traditional Hawaiian dish called poki, which is a mixture of raw fish, such as tuna, and other seasonings.

Spencer said the seaweed, available in red or green colors, is very popular among chefs but is also being sold in Honolulu-area supermarkets for about $3.50 a pound.

As is the case with the fish farmers, Spencer realized there would be a market for sea vegetables as local supplies of the weed dwindled.

"For many years, the Hawaiians used to pick off bunches of the seaweed, but still leave a little clinging to rocks and tide pools so it would continue growing. But in the last 30 years, other Pacific Islanders (such as Samoans) realized the plant's commercial value, over-harvested and denuded the whole sides of some (Hawaiian) islands. We saw that happening six years ago and began cultivating it," he said.

Fish farming is by no means limited to ocean species. One promising aquaculture product is the recent work of the Australian Crayfish Industries. The firm exhibited, for the first time, its version of this fresh-water shellfish.

Those expecting tiny, finger-sized crustaceans were surprised to see the product measure several inches in length and actually resemble jumbo shrimp or small lobsters in meat content. And to emphasize the point, the Denver-based firm that will market the Australian crayfish in this country adopted Freshwater Lobsters as its corporate name.

Sixteen tons of the crayfish will be marketed in 1989 in both fresh and frozen forms. The company hopes to more than double the total next year, but is already claiming that "demand greatly exceeds supply."

Apart from the farmed fish, the number of exotic species is also expanding. New Zealand interests are now heavily promoting hoki.

Importers, namely Fletcher Seafoods in Seattle, hope to position hoki with other popular white fish, such as haddock and cod, but at a lower price. The firm-textured fish is the latest in a series from the South Pacific, the most recent success having been orange roughy.

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