SHORT SUPPLY SPURS FROZEN FISH BUYING

The unusually harsh winter weather in the Northeast along with natural fluctuations in seafood catches in other regions has caused sporadic shortages of some fresh fish items this year.To offset tight supplies, some retailers are using more frozen product or relying more heavily on farm-raised fish to keep their supermarket seafood cases stocked. Still others have added different species to their

The unusually harsh winter weather in the Northeast along with natural fluctuations in seafood catches in other regions has caused sporadic shortages of some fresh fish items this year.

To offset tight supplies, some retailers are using more frozen product or relying more heavily on farm-raised fish to keep their supermarket seafood cases stocked. Still others have added different species to their mix.

Lee Weddig, executive vice president of the National Fisheries Institute, Arlington, Va., said while there have been abundant supplies of frozen commodity-type items, fresh catfish "has been tight." There also have been shortages of shrimp because of difficulties in some overseas harvesting areas, particularly China, stemming from several factors including disease and poor-quality larvae.

"There has been a mixed bag altogether," said Weddig.

The New England Fisheries Development Association, Boston, reported that the numerous storms this winter have cut down on fishing time in the Northeast, causing some shortages of cod, pollock, haddock, and other flat fish.

SN polled retailers in different U.S. markets this month about how they are handling supply fluctuations this winter. Some reported making substitutions for fish in short supply, while others have found no difficulties at all.

Here's what they had to say:

Simeon Bryant seafood buyer

Harris-Teeter Charlotte, N.C.

I have had some difficulty, especially with East Coast fin fish species, between December and January.

Flounder has been a little short this year, and there has been some shortage on swordfish. Those are the two major ones.

We have looked at some imported items, but mostly we deal with domestic. We don't shop around too much. We try to stay with our normal suppliers, and if they feel it would be a bad decision to go with an imported product then we follow their advice.

We would rather put up a sign that says there is a shortage due to weather conditions or an act of God rather than pull another product in at this time.

Also, with all the negative press that is going on with it, we made an initiative here to go for more farm-raised product and [focus on] the way that we handle our fish.

Meanwhile, we have added some West Coast species, not to help relieve the shortage, but simply to add more variety. Some new items include: Dover sole, rockfish, and trolley soul.

John Darda seafood director

Basics/Metro Food Markets Randallstown, Md.

The last couple of weeks it has been really bad. There has been a cutdown on variety of head fish and prices did go up.

The month of February was very bad. For example, the whole hake, usually priced between $1.50 and $1.60, went to $2.50 to $3. Ocean perch and black-tip shark went up 50 cents a pound, and lobster prices have gone up real high. Now we are fishing them out of the Canadian waters and prices have gone up from $4 to the $6.50 range.

And they are not catching any shrimp. That's why the price is going up another $1 to $1.50 a pound.

A lot of it is the bad weather and all the ice, and the fish just not being there.

Well, right now, since it is Lent, we are offering a lot of frozen filets -- the orange roughy, sea trout, frozen turbot, also frozen swordfish.

Those things seem to be at a fixed price that we can offer to the consumer.

Going into spring, people are fishing for shad and they are not finding them. So now all the prices are going up. It is in the whole fish industry, it is going to be up.

John Taber seafood buyer

Scott's Food Stores Fort Wayne, Ind.

On fresh it is kind of hit or miss. We are not having a lot of luck getting a lot of variety, so we have to lean on frozen.

Perch is an absolutely terrible item to try to get, and the price has gone out of this world.

Catfish has been hard to get because the catfish farmers are not selling off as much of their product. They are trying somewhat of a strike to drive up the price.

But there again, a couple of years ago, cod was in the same boat. Now it is plentiful and the price is good.

We have had to change our strategy from advertising items that were really successful for us in the past. But we have found substitutes. We are starting to get the tilapia and the Cape Capensis, which is fantastic. It is like an orange roughy at a moderate price.

Another popular one now is Alaskan pollock and Chinese pollock. We have had to lean toward the frozen product to slack out and put in our fresh cases, because we can't depend on the fresh suppliers.

Otherwise, we are doing well in the seafood department with some salad mixtures that we are putting together ourselves. We buy salad bases and mix surimi or crab or other seafood in with them.

Doug Gilbert seafood buyer

Quality Markets Jamestown, N.Y.

We really haven't had too much of a problem. We may be a day short here or there, but not too much really, considering the bad weather.

I don't think we've had to make an out-and-out substitution for an item. Maybe with perch more than anything else. We have been able to get perch, but it isn't always fresh. Sometimes we have had to substitute the frozen. We've had to tell customers it's been frozen rather than strictly fresh.

Al Kober meat, seafood buyer-merchandiser

Clemens Markets Lansdale, Pa.

Any fresh product coming out of the New England waters are affected by the snowstorms. But we haven't had any real shortages of product.

We have had a day or two when things haven't been available, but we haven't experienced any major shortages.

But also, we try to concentrate on species that are available, such as the farm product and the frozen product such as the orange roughy. Then you are not at the mercy of the weather.

Some other items include salmon, catfish, rainbow trout, and the tilapia, which is a farmed product and available all year round.

Some newer items we have introduced include oreodory, Lake Victoria perch and some of the frozen species that are imported. They give you options that you know you can get.

Arley Morrison VP, meat, deli operations

Minyard Food Stores Coppell, Texas

We have not experienced any problem at all with our supply of seafood. We ran short on a couple of items, but just because we didn't order enough.

Basically our supplier in Fort Worth has not had any problem with supplying us at all. Our sales have been excellent on seafood, especially with our Lent program.

Mostly we are handling the [individually quick frozen] gulf shrimp, and basically, we have been able to get all that we want.

Regarding catfish, we haven't had any problems either. Not at all. We sell lots of catfish on a weekly basis. Usually the item that we do the best job with is the whole headless fish, or the boneless catfish filets. Those are usually the items that we anchor our seafood ads with.

Gary Huddleston manager, consumer affairs

Kroger Co. Houston division

I'd say we haven't had any problem with supply. We have been able to have the ample supply of what we normally carry.

But in some areas the cost has increased. Orange roughy is an example. Some of that is traditional supply and demand.

We also have been okay in terms of getting catfish. But we are very close to where the farm-raised catfish is.