Monday’s news that tilapia is now America’s fourth favorite seafood item came as no surprise to U.S. seafood professionals.
The farmed finfish’s rise to prominence has been ceaseless since its debut at No. 10 on the Top 10 list in 2002, when per-capita tilapia consumption totaled about 0.3 pounds. Last year, it reached 1.45 pounds, overtaking Alaska pollock for the No. 4 position, though it’s worth noting that the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands pollock biomass simply cycled through a low in 2009 and is now on its way up, explaining the dip in per-capita pollock consumption from 2009 to 2010.
Perhaps the two most conspicuous trends in U.S. seafood consumption over the past decade are shrimp surpassing canned tuna in 2002 to become America’s favorite seafood item, where it remains today, and tilapia’s rise to prominence.
Tilapia is now a household name. Or is it?
I found it ironic that on the same day the Top 10 list was released by the National Fisheries Institute, I received a timely text from a childhood friend who I grew up with in Massachusetts and now lives in Arizona. He asked, “Is tilapia related to something my New England family would recognize? They think it’s some kind of exotic beast. They take unadventurous eating about as far as you can possibly imagine.”
Exotic beast? I chuckled. The point to this story is that even the most unadventurous, uninformed consumers — and there are a lot of them here in the United States — are trying tilapia, largely because it’s so available, affordable and approachable, thanks to its mild, sweet taste and firm, flakey texture.
And that’s exactly why the next “up-and-comer” holds so much promise. Pangasius made its debut on the Top 10 list at 0.35 pounds in 2009 and edged clams for the No. 9 position at 0.4 pounds in 2010. Like tilapia, pangasius fits the profile — it’s available, affordable and approachable. Though the majority of Americans can’t identify pangasius as a species of finfish, many have tried it and liked it.
But a lot stands in the way — tariffs on product imported from Vietnam, in place since 2003; the potential that regulatory oversight may shift from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, curbing the flow of product into the U.S. market; and a serious supply shortfall in Vietnam, which SeafoodSource Contributing Editor Mike Urch illustrated in Monday’s commentary “Acting in isolation.” These barriers lead to illicit practices such as transshipping and mislabeling, and no good comes of that.
Tilapia has helped stabilize the U.S. seafood supply at a time when wild fisheries production has leveled off worldwide. But, for pangasius, the road to notoriety will be a much rockier one. As the barriers mount, it’s increasingly difficult to believe that my friend’s family of unadventurous eaters will be inquiring about pangasius anytime soon.