FISH OUTLOOK: SOME TIGHT SUPPLIES

With limited supplies of some popular fish, retailers expect to substitute comparable species and rely more heavily on farm-raised products this year.That is according to an SN poll of retailers about predictions for the category in 1995."Basically, in the seafood area, we have seen a tightening of the fresh fish supplies, and that's due to a lot of things," said Judy Gagnon, spokeswoman for Hannaford

With limited supplies of some popular fish, retailers expect to substitute comparable species and rely more heavily on farm-raised products this year.

That is according to an SN poll of retailers about predictions for the category in 1995.

"Basically, in the seafood area, we have seen a tightening of the fresh fish supplies, and that's due to a lot of things," said Judy Gagnon, spokeswoman for Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, which operates 119 stores. A major part of that tightening stems from the government closing of some New England waters in an effort to allow stocks of cod and other flat fish to replenish, she said .

"We have been looking for affordable alternatives from other sources, including farm-raised products and other products from around the world," she said.

For instance, said Gagnon, with the high price of fresh haddock, the chain is turning to frozen-at-sea haddock. "We can offer that at a much better price," she said.

The seafood buyer at another supermarket chain based in the Northeast added, "It is no secret that the availability of fresh fish is diminishing, and that fact is affecting pricing, which is higher."

Tom Turturro, director of meat, deli and seafood at 12-store Magruder Inc., Rockville, Md., said he also expects sourcing products at good prices will be difficult this year.

"I think the everyday availability of any wild fish is going to be really, really tight. I think farm-raised prices are going to stay in line, and that is what you will see more of."

He said his company will continue to look for new items, and will focus on farm-raised varieties. However, he said, an attempt to offer tilapia, a mild-flavored fish that has grown in popularity in other areas, failed for his stores. "We have tried it and that didn't do well."

And while shrimp supplies had been tight last year due to foreign crop failures, retailers said there seems to be supplies available now, and prices, while higher, are stabilizing.

"Shrimp prices are still high, but there is some softening," said Turturro, who declined to discuss prices or sales figures.

The buyer for a Southwest supermarket chain, who asked not be named, also said farm-raised product would play a greater role in its product mix, which relies heavily on red snapper and shrimp.

"We haven't had problems sourcing shrimp too much," said the buyer. "Hopefully, we are seeing a little stabilizing of the prices, and we find ourselves able to source some product that gives customers a good value."

Rick Cavanaugh, seafood department manager at Queen Anne Thriftway, Seattle, said he also is seeing less wild fish available.

"Cod is particularly affected," said Cavanaugh, "and the fish that I do see, the size is much smaller, and the fillets are much smaller. They are catching younger fish, the older ones are gone."

On the positive side, he said, "I see more farm-raised product becoming available and more options."

This year he said, his store will emphasize some alternatives, such as tilapia. Also, said Cavanaugh, "I just put in an order for farm-raised sturgeon, which I normally don't buy.

"It is getting to where I have to look further for product, beyond my normal supplier," said Cavanaugh. The price for a medium-sized shrimp was $8.99 a year ago, but is $9.79 now, he said. "So they've gone up almost 10%, but rather than finding a cheaper substitute, I will charge a higher price," Cavanaugh explained.

Despite the challenges of supply and price, Cavanaugh said he is looking forward to his best year ever in 1995.

He said the Queen Anne Thriftway's holiday sales, with emphasis on smoked salmon, mussels, dips and spreads, were up "considerably" from last year. He said the seafood department had higher dollar sales for Christmas than the deli and almost surpassed the meat department. "That is something highly unusual," Cavanaugh said.