Seafood consumption trends in the US, and the Coral Triangle connection

Posted on 11 March 2014

How does seafood consumption compare related to other protein sources in the US? What do Americans think about seafood, especially in terms of sustainability? And how does the Coral Triangle contribute to the US seafood market? WWF's Catherine Plume (WWF US Coral Triangle Programme Managing Director) chats with Caroline Tippett (WWF US Director of Seafood Engagement) about current trends.
By Catherine Plume, Managing Director, Coral Triangle Programme, WWF US

Growing up in central Texas in the 1960s, fresh seafood was a rare commodity that was usually enjoyed only during our trips to the coast on the Gulf of Mexico. There was no fish market at our grocery stores, and most of the fish we consumed was in the form of frozen “fish sticks” - processed breaded whitefish (cod, haddock or pollock) - or canned tuna.

Times have changed and nowadays, almost every grocery store, even those located in rural areas, carries a stock of fresh fish, shrimp, crab and lobster. I recently sat down with Caroline Tippett, Director of Seafood Engagement at WWF-US to learn more about seafood consumption in the US.

Seafood consumption, still relatively low

Despite the relative abundance of seafood in the US, seafood consumption still pales compared to other protein sources. In 2012, the US consumed approximately 2.1 million kg (4.6 million lbs) of seafood per year or 6.6 kg (14.6 lbs) per capita (compared to 38.1 kg (84 lbs)/capita chicken, 25.4 kg (56 lbs)/capita beef, and 21.3 kg (47 lbs)/capita pork. Seafood consumption in the US is essentially flat, though the dollar value is increasing (USDA, 2012).

In fact, seafood consumption in the US has actually decreased in the last seven years as consumption per capita was 7.5 kg (16.5 lbs) per capita in 2006, before the recession of 2008 (NFI, 2012). US seafood consumption is highly correlated to the US economy, and it is perceived by Americans as a “healthy but expensive” protein source.

Shrimp at the top of the list

Further, concerns about quality and a lack of knowledge about how to prepare seafood means that most Americans prefer to consume seafood at restaurants versus at home. Shrimp is the most popular seafood consumed in the US, followed by canned tuna, salmon, and tilapia.

US Seafood Consumption Graph

The seafood market in the US can be broken down into two groups: the food service industry (restaurants, cafeterias and catering) that dominates approximately 2/3 of the US seafood market, and retail seafood that is sold in grocery stores and fish markets. Retail seafood is a $16 billion per year industry with 53% of seafood sold as “fresh/thawed” (most “fresh” seafood sold in the US has been frozen and unthawed), 33% sold as frozen and 13% as canned seafood. Tuna - fresh, frozen, and canned - makes up a full 75% of the US retail seafood market (Mintel, 2012).

Where the Coral Triangle fits in

The Coral Triangle is essentially the world’s seafood supermarket, and is a huge source of seafood for the US:

For US shrimp imports, Indonesia ranks third (after Thailand and Ecuador), Malaysia is among the top 10 countries and the Philippines among the top 20 countries. Meanwhile, most tuna brought into the US comes from Indonesia, followed by Vietnam and the Philippines (Urner Barry Foreign Trade, 2013).

What Americans think about seafood and sustainability

According to a 2012 Mintel survey, Americans are concerned about healthy stocks and sustainability when it comes to their seafood choices.
  • 84% of respondents are concerned about the stock status of the seafood they consume, while for 82% of respondents, sustainability is an important issue.
  • Some 64% of consumers want retailers to provide them with sustainable seafood choices while 58% would like to see information about sustainability on packaging.
  • On the other hand, 37% are confused about sustainability, so there’s still a need for more communication and education about sustainability.

Getting started with Fisheries Improvement Projects (FIPs)

Despite some progress, sustainability in the fisheries sector has a long way to go. Increasingly, seafood industry and government leaders recognize that we are literally fishing ourselves out of business. WWF is working with companies and governments to implement Fisheries Improvement Projects (FIPs) to identify problems within a fishery and then establish workplans to address the issues – always with an eye to ensuring sustainable fish stocks. While it’s still difficult for consumers to know if their seafood comes from a FIP, certification labels such as MSC can be a useful tool.

Getting to MSC

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has certified approximately 8% of the world’s seafood, but the bulk of this comes from “developed” countries versus the “Indonesias” and “Philippines” of the world where the bulk of US seafood is sourced.

Even today, a large proportion of the world’s seafood is fished by artisanal fishers for whom MSC certification remains an almost intangible goal. There’s a real need to expand sustainable fishing and aquaculture practices through rigorous certification systems such as MSC and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC).

It will also be important to ensure that these certifications are feasible and affordable for small fishers, so that we don’t return to the era of the 1960s where seafood markets were a rare feature in the US – if not the world.

Live reef fish in a market
© Jürgen Freund / WWF
A can of MSC certified sustainable seafood, show here salmon meat.
© WWF / Elma Okic