Americans are eating exactly as much seafood as they always have

2015 consumption rates match recent and long-term averages

Though the U.S. government promotes seafood as an omega-3 fat-packed ambrosia deserving two meals a week, consumers aren’t biting.

Despite being the second-largest seafood consuming nation, Americans eat overwhelmingly more of every other protein — peanuts, eggs, pork, beef, lamb and poultry — than they do of seafood, according to a 2014 U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

Seafood did beat out tree nuts, dried beans and lentils.

Seafood consumption rates, however, are up from last year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Despite cheery headlines and nutritionists praising Americans’ dietary habits in recent weeks, the poundage boost doesn’t mean anything except a break from a 30-year historic low point.

According to a Fisheries of the U.S. report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. seafood consumption increased from 14.6 pounds in 2014 to 15.5 pounds in 2015. This seems like good news, but in reality it’s only a recovery.

American seafood consumption hasn’t been as low as the last few years since the 1980s, according to the NOAA report. The levels last year merely broke a low spell of 14.4, 14.5 and 14.6 pounds per person in 2012, 2013 and 2014, respectively.

This year’s “spike” in seafood consumption gets the nation back to average. Since 1990, Americans ate an average 15.3 pounds per person.

Putting it in perspective

Still, a pound per person per year is a statistically meaty jump and a signal of better times for an industry struggling under excessive supply and a nasty foreign export market driven by the U.S. dollar’s strength in key markets.

Nobody knows why the consumption levels jumped nearly a full pound in a year.

During a media call, NOAA statistician Alan Lowther chalked up the increase to a “larger amount of fish available for fresh and frozen consumption,” but said any information beyond that would be a guess.

NOAA itself doesn’t know what species made up the largest part of the increase.

“The model that we have does not allow us to break out individual species or products; rather the model groups products together in broad classes,” explained John Ewald, a NOAA public affairs coordinator.

According to the NOAA report, per capita consumption of fresh and frozen products rose 0.6 pounds from 2014. Without a species breakdown, giving Alaska’s seafood industry credit for U.S. seafood consumption can be difficult.

Ewald agreed with Lowther that the bulk of the growth was an across the board rise in fresh and frozen salmon products. Other studies point to salmon as the main driver, but the numbers don’t match up with NOAA’s.

For example, the National Fisheries Institute released a Top 10 report detailing the most heavily consumed species. Shrimp tops the list. Salmon, which comes in second, increased from 2.3 pounds to 2.9 pounds between 2014 and 2015.

These numbers come from the NOAA Fisheries of the U.S. report, according to the institute, though NOAA statisticians themselves didn’t have any species detail.

In a response to a Journal inquiry, Gavin Gibbons of the NFI said via e-mail the NOAA does not do the work to break down each species (or even the top ten) by consumption.

“They have access to the data, they just don’t break it down. We compile our top ten list from import data and FUS (Fisheries of the U.S.) data then use a disappearance model coupled with specific yield ratios to determine actual consumption,” he wrote.

In the can

“A third of the increase was attributable to increases in consumption of canned products, particularly canned salmon,” Ewald wrote. “This may be reflecting an increase in supply from the biennial pink salmon runs. A portion of this consumption could be reflecting warehoused supply rather than immediately consumed product.”

Consumption of canned fishery products was 3.7 pounds per capita in 2015, up 0.3 pounds from 2014, according to the report.

This number could make it look like canned seafood consumption is growing, but over the long term U.S. consumers have been buying less and less of it. Americans ate 0.3 pounds more canned seafood in 2015 than in 2014, but that’s a pound less than in 2000 and a 1.4 pounds less than in 1990.

Most of that decline was due to a drop in demand for canned tuna, while canned salmon demand has hovered around 0.3 pounds.

In the canned category, U.S. buyers consumed 0.3 pounds of salmon in 2015 — which is the average yearly consumption rate going back to 1985.

The increase in canned salmon consumption coincides with a 2014 pink salmon season of such epic proportion that the USDA spent $13 million on canned pink salmon in order to bail out overstocked Alaska seafood processors. This amounted to 8.2 million cans of product.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
11/09/2016 - 2:18pm

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