Seattle fish-egg auctions bring in hundreds of millions
The bidders walk deliberately among trays of small, lung-shaped sacs full of fish eggs. The room inside a nondescript gray trailer near...
The Associated Press
SEATTLE — The bidders walk deliberately among trays of small, lung-shaped sacs full of fish eggs. The room inside a nondescript gray trailer near Seattle's waterfront is white from floor to ceiling, setting off the bright red of the roe sacs. Constantly humming air filters kept the smell of fish at bay.
Scanning each tray, Akiro Miura picked up a pair of sacs, studying their color and gently squeezing them to check their firmness. Hundreds of millions of dollars trade hands during the brief pollock roe auctions here, and Miura was accordingly deliberate.
Fresh pollock roe feels like spongy cake. Less fresh roe is squishier. Miura turned the sacs over in his hand, looking for veins that would hurt the retail value. The sacs were the highest grade — called mako. With a few swift mental calculations, he put a value to the eggs and made a note on a bid sheet.
Miura was one of dozens of buyers from Japan and Korea bidding on pollock roe, which is a delicacy in those countries. During two main auctions in Seattle, they buy around $400 million worth of the little, red eggs. A smaller buyer, Miura planned to spend between $5-$10 million on 200-300 tons. The pair of sacs he examined weighed around 4 ounces, and would cost $3-$4 at auction. After reprocessing, the same roe would sell for $10-12 at retail in Japan, Miura said.
Reprocessed pollock roe has been a mainstay in Japanese and Korean cuisine for decades, and even lent its name to a Japanese pop rock movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s — "mentai rock." The Japanese name for the processed roe is "mentaiko," a combination of the Korean word for pollock — "myeong" — and the Japanese word for children — "ko."
Mentaiko is either spicy or salty, but each re-processor puts its own special twist on its product. Miura grew up eating salted mentaiko, the traditional Japanese variation but now prefers the spicy Korean style.
Pollock roe can be cooked into a dish, such as pasta or an omelet, or used sparingly as a garnish on everything from noodles to risotto to hand-rolled sushi.
"Pollock roe is a luxury item, so overall demand might be declining because of the overall economic slump. But we're not sure," Miura said.
While pollock roe is expensive, pollock itself is a cheap whitefish used for frozen fillets and imitation crab. Most of it comes from the Bering Sea off Alaska, the largest whitefish fishery in the world, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. In 2006, 3.4 billion pounds of pollock were caught off Alaska. While roe makes up roughly five percent of the total catch weight, it nets around one-third of the total catch value.
The Seattle auctions dominate the pollock roe wholesale world, and are expected to move around 60,000 tons of roe this year, according to John Sackton, editor of Seafood.com News. The smaller Korean auctions, which sell pollock from the Russian fishery, are expected to move 20,000 tons.
Like other buyers, Miura worked in silence, keeping his notes out of sight from the competition. Most buyers work for a reprocessing company in Japan or Korea, but some, like Miura, represent several smaller companies.
Color is key to a buyer's bid. Lighter red pollock roe is the best — and most expensive. It is the right level of maturity and freshness, and needs the least reprocessing. Older roe is darker, and needs more seasoning to cover up its older flavor.
Producers make their roe look its best with dyes and lighting arrangements, explained Shinichi Ode, vice president of Seattle-based Icicle Seafoods, Inc., a pollock producer.
The lighting is a trade secret, said Bart Lovejoy of Surefish, which sets up the auction displays for many companies.
Some buyers put paint chips down beside the sacs and take photos, which are sent to bosses in Japan or Korea, who send back bidding instructions. Some buyers, such as Miura, brine samples overnight to see how the roe will handle reprocessing.
Buyers bid carefully, considering many factors that affect the price.
"It's consumption in Japan, fishing situation in Alaska or Russia, and maturity stage of the roe itself," said Soji Sukigara, who works for a seafood exporting company based in nearby Bellevue.
Sometimes buyers just have to trust their intuition because they're buying a company's supply for a year or more during a brief two weeks, Sukigara said.
If a pollock producer wants top value at auction, its roe must be accurately graded. Buyers only see a small fraction of the lots they bid on. If a re-processor pays for top-grade eggs but winds up with roe of lesser grade, it takes a loss, Miura said. So buyers stick with companies that grade consistently, even if it means higher prices.
Grading must be done quickly and accurately while processing the fish. Only skilled and experienced crew grade roe.
"If you spend too much time grading, fish start losing freshness," Miura explained. "Perfect grading is impossible, because this is a fish business."
Prices were up at this year's auctions in Seattle because the National Marine Fisheries Service had lowered the total allowed catch for pollock.
The allowed catch for pollock is expected to stay down next year as well, said Dr. Jim Ianelli, with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, who helps set the catch limits.
The estimated pollock population in the Bering Sea has declined from record levels five years ago, but the stock is considered healthy and not overfished, said Ianelli. More one-year old fish were found in the last survey, meaning the population should rise in the next few years.
Demand for pollock roe helps fuel the ongoing debate over the massive fishery.
The Alaskan fishery was certified in 2004 as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, but Greenpeace and other environmental groups argue that the catch quotas leave too little room for mistakes, said John Hovecar, Greenpeace's oceans' specialist.
Alaskan pollock is the largest single source of food in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, and a population collapse could have catastrophic results for other species. Populations of several species that prey on pollock have declined in recent years, Hovecar said.
In the end Miura did not buy any pollock roe in Seattle. Prices were too high for his clients.
"We have to make money, so that means we do not want to overpay for the quality. We have to bid competitively," said Miura, who hopes to buy Russian-caught roe from auctions in Korea at lower prices.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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