CORVALLIS, Ore. – A shortage of pollock from Alaska, as well as other white-fleshed fish from around the globe, has created a supply crisis among manufacturers of surimi – the processed fish protein that is turned into surimi-based seafood, including crabstick and other shellfish-flavored products.
As a result, surimi prices have more than doubled in the last two years, according to Oregon State University’s Jae Park, a leading surimi researcher and consultant to the surimi products industry.
“Fish landings around the world are down and some seafood processors also are choosing to produce more pollock fillets – especially for the European market – instead of supplying raw material for the manufacture of surimi,” Park said. “This crisis is not going to go away soon. Even if the U.S. pollock situation gets better next year, fish landings of warm-water species in Southeast Asia are down almost 40 percent from five years ago.”
Pollock harvests are strictly monitored and the allowable catch in 2008 is just over 1 million tons, down from 1.4 million tons in 2007.
Park and other researchers – in conjunction with the late Herbert Hultin of the University of Massachusetts, who patented a process – have been exploring new ways of making fish protein isolate using other fish species and their efforts are finding success. They are on the verge of commercializing a new technique to use fish with colored flesh to make fish protein isolate, which would open the door to new supply markets for surimi-based seafood.
At the eighth Surimi Industry Forum hosted by the OSU Seafood Laboratory in Astoria this spring, Park presented an overview of new technologies that demonstrate the potential for using various fish – including colored fish and their byproducts – for protein fish isolate. Of the 36 refereed journal articles on the topic, more than half have been published by Park and his former students and staff.
“To be eligible for a surimi resource, a particular species must be abundant, currently under-utilized, and be economically viable,” Park said. “We’ve already been trying looking at other white-fleshed fish for surimi, including the arrowtooth flounder from the Gulf of Alaska and the North Pacific, and the freshwater carp.
“The arrowtooth flounder has a bycatch issue with halibut,” Park pointed out. “And carp has to overcome possible contamination from heavy metals in some locations. That’s why we’re so excited about the potential breakthrough in using fish with colored flesh. It would open many new doors for surimi processors.”
Surimi has become a major international commodity with its annual production of more than 500,000 tons and a value of $2.2 billion. When converted to finished products, Park said, the market value for surimi-based seafood exceeds $10 billion.
In 1993, Oregon State University established the “OSU Surimi School” at its Seafood Laboratory in Astoria, Ore., where Park and his colleagues share the latest in surimi research and demonstrate new processing techniques to the participants – mostly food scientists, technicians and surimi manufacturers. The school has gained international recognition, and Park takes his program on the road each year, alternating between sites in Europe and Asia.
Seven years ago, Park launched the Surimi Industry Forum, which annually draws more than 120 participants from around the globe to discuss issues ranging from international policies, management, marketing and economics – all related to surimi and surimi seafood. The global shortage of fish was the primary topic of conservation at this year’s meeting, held in May.
“One thing that became apparent is that surimi seafood manufacturers cannot continue to do business as usual,” Park said. “To stay competitive in this tough situation, they will have to consolidate their operations and make products that provide reasonable (economic) margins. Any products that are on the edge – either in terms of quality or profit margin – will have to be discontinued.”
Opening up new supply markets – whether by using arrowtooth flounder, carp or non-whitefish species – may help turn the surimi crisis around. Park also hopes the development of new products in Europe and Asia will catch on in the United States, and he and his OSU colleagues are doing their part to help.
“American consumers enjoy fried foods, from fish-and-chips to French fries,” Park said, “so why not fried surimi? It is extremely popular in Japan and Korea. On the other hand, in Spain, the best-selling item is seafood pasta. American consumers also love pasta, so there are opportunities there, too.”
More information on the Surimi School is available online at: http://surimischool.org .