SEAFOOD SALES ARE GOING SWIMMINGLY, SAYS STUDY

NEW YORK -- Abundant supplies and a robust economy helped to boost seafood sales in 1996, after a rocky period in the 1980s and early 1990s, according to a study on seafood market trends by FIND/SVP here.Total production in 1996 of edible seafood -- defined as saltwater and freshwater species, including shellfish -- was 9.6 billion pounds, according to the study, which is the same amount as in 1994

NEW YORK -- Abundant supplies and a robust economy helped to boost seafood sales in 1996, after a rocky period in the 1980s and early 1990s, according to a study on seafood market trends by FIND/SVP here.

Total production in 1996 of edible seafood -- defined as saltwater and freshwater species, including shellfish -- was 9.6 billion pounds, according to the study, which is the same amount as in 1994 and 1% higher than the previous year.

The study attributes this growth over 1995 to a mild increase in both foreign and domestic harvests, as well as aquaculture. Poundage is expected to grow modestly for the rest of the decade.

The study estimated that 7.9 billion pounds, or roughly 80% of total seafood production, was caught in the wild. This figure was reported to be a 1.3% increase over 1995, attributed primarily to a larger salmon harvest. The percentage of fish harvested in the wild had dropped 5.2% between 1993 and 1995.

Wild harvests are expected to reach their limits in the near future, asserted the study, because of overfishing. Future growth will come from aquaculture production, which, according to the study, rose 2.6% from 1995 to 1996.

The overall value of the retail seafood market was estimated to have reached $8.8 billion in 1996, 1.9% more than in 1995. The study characterized past market growth as erratic; the 1991 market was valued at $8.6 billion -- a figure only slightly lower than the 1996 numbers -- and future growth was forecast to be moderate, averaging about 1.6% to 1.7% a year until 2001.

Dollar sales of fresh and cured seafood, according to the study, have gained proportionally over canned and frozen since 1991, continuing a trend that started decades earlier but has accelerated in recent years. Fresh and cured seafood sales, currently estimated at $6 billion, were expected to continue to grow at an annual rate of 2% until 2001.

Fresh seafood sales had grown to 67.6% of the total market in 1996, a 3% rise over 1991. Fresh and cured seafood sales were expected to continue to take an even greater market share as consumers respond to the growing availability of fresh fish, which the study maintained they preferred over canned and frozen.

Most of fresh and cured seafood's percentage gains came at the expense of the canned category, which dropped from 23.7% in 1991 to an estimated historic low of 21.3% in 1996. Canned seafood sales were expected to continue to drop at the rate of 0.5% a year until 2001.

Sales of frozen seafood dropped slightly from 11.8% in 1991 to an estimated 11.1% in 1996, an estimated $980 million, and are expected to pick up annually at the rate of 3.3% through 2001 as consumers increase their acceptance of frozen as a replacement for fresh seafood. The study noted that overfishing had negatively affected seafood supplies to the extent that wild-caught fish would not continue to keep up with demand. Due to the added expense of farmed fish, prices were expected to increase, continuing a trend that began in the early 1990s.

The consumer will increasingly opt to buy fresh and frozen fish in the form of steaks and fillets, according to the study.

Due to the delicate nature of seafood, the use of cryogenic freezing -- which reportedly freezes the flesh so quickly that it does not damage the cell walls -- will continue to grow in popularity. The study also forecast that the portion of shrimp sold peeled, deveined and individually quick-frozen would increase.

Unusually large catches of wild Alaskan salmon, according to the study, have caused a glut on the marketplace, which has kept prices down. This salmon surplus has also led to the proliferation of new value-added products, like salmon burgers, hams, pates and sausages.

The study reported that retailers, recognizing consumers' needs for more information about how to handle and prepare seafood, are doing more demonstrations and providing recipes and tips at their full-service counters.

While seafood sales suffered in the late 1980s because of the recession, according to the study, they were expected to remain strong in the 1990s if the upswing in the economy persisted.

Another force expected to continue driving seafood sales, according to the study, was the public's ever-growing interest in convenient foods, like fish, that are quick to prepare.

In an analysis of consumer use of seafood, the study concluded that canned tuna was the most widely used form of seafood in the nation with 88.5 million, or 84.5%, of U.S. households' principal shoppers using it in 1996. Fresh seafood was used by 45.4 million people, or 43.4% of the total population, while frozen prepared seafood was used by 38.7 million, or 37% of the population, during the same time frame.

Several seasonal and regional seafood sales trends were picked up by the study. The fresh and frozen categories see increased sales during Lent, the summer grilling season and the end-of-the-year holiday season. The Northeast and the West are reported to account for the highest proportion of overall seafood use per capita, and the South -- classified as the largest demographic region in population -- accounts for the most overall sales.

The FIND/SVP study covered the retail U.S. seafood market, including supermarkets, nonsupermarket grocery stores, specialty food stores, gourmet shops, mass merchandisers, warehouse stores and pharmacies.

The study was based on data obtained from research conducted by Simmons Market Research Bureau, New York, and information taken from sources that include federal and state government agencies, articles, trade journals and industry reports.