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A Fine Kettle of Fish: Rising Seafood Prices Pushing Restaurants to Rethink Menus

shallow focus photography of seafoods

Maryland without crab cakes. An ahi tuna shortage in Hawaii. Clams missing from the menu in Massachusetts. Are we running out of fish?

“Yes, there is a shortage of fish, in some part, because of the shortage of fishermen,” Dane Chauvel, CEO of Organic Ocean, told The Food Institute. In addition, “environmental factors have in some cases caused the resource managers to throttle back fisheries.”

The shortages are coming amid the restaurant industry’s comeback from COVID lockdowns.

Lyf Gildersleeve, owner of Flying Fish Seafood in Portland, Oregon, blames the shortages in part on climate change and stocks moving to colder waters. “Also, some of the primary processors have had inadequate staff due to the labor shortage, and lastly there are supply issues that are left over from the lack of fishing during the pandemic due to lack of demand for seafood when the restaurants were all closed,” Gildersleeve told The Food Institute.

Mike Price, co-owner of a Greenwich Village restaurant in New York, told Bloomberg (July 27) prices on scallops have gone “crazy,” forcing him to take them off the menu. For Josue Pena, the chef at the Iberian Pig in Atlanta, the crab shortage has forced him to remove his signature dish, crab croquettes, from the menu because “the price we had to charge to be profitable was almost insulting.”

Fresh seafood prices soared 8 percent in the second quarter of 2021 versus 2019, while frozen seafood prices experienced the biggest gain over the same span, up 9.2 percent, according to IRI and 210 Analytics.

In Baltimore, Zack Mills, the chef at True Chesapeake Oyster Co., told The New York Times (July 3) he had to up the price of his crab cake sandwich to $24, a $5 increase.

In Hawaii, the shortage of ahi has forced poke shops to decide between higher prices and closing altogether, Hawaii NewNow reported (July 26). Last year at this time there was an oversupply of ahi because of the lack of tourism, Michael Goto of the United Fishing Agency told Hawaii NewsNow. He estimates the local fishing industry lost $40 million during the pandemic.

“It’s never been like this before,” Gary Kandalaft, owner of Tony’s Clam Shop in Quincy, Massachusetts, told The Patriot Ledger (July 26).

And the situation isn’t going to resolve anytime soon.

Salmon are dying in one California river because of the blistering heat wave.

“The pain we’re going to feel is a few years from now when there will be no naturally spawned salmon out in the ocean, John McManus, executive director of the Golden State Salmon Association, told the Associated Press (July 28).

“From a production [harvest] perspective the bad news is that we’re not generally catching as much while the good news is that the lower production is being offset by higher prices,” Organic Ocean’s Chauvel said. “Will this change any time soon? Sorry, my crystal ball is no better than anyone else’s.  I would say that food and particularly sustainably and responsibly harvested and produced nutritional food is a hot area given my observation of the interest in the space from high finance.”

Chauvel noted food prices in general are up, largely due to higher labor, fuel, shipping and packaging costs.

“Here in British Columbia, the federal minister of Fisheries and Oceans recently announced the closure of 60% of our wild capture salmon fisheries. You can imagine the socio-economic impact on an industry that is already fragile,” Chauvel said.

“The minister also announced a license/privilege retirement program to take capacity out of our commercial salmon fishery which, given the reduction in access, is a sensible and appropriate move.  The concern being that if you downsize fisheries too much – while you’re working to rebuild the resource – you may lose the supply chain infrastructure which the fisheries rely on to get the fish to market. Should that occur, you have less supply and the price to the consumer rises. It also raises the specter of domestic food insecurity.”

North America is not the only area experiencing shortages and price surges. Seafood Source reported (July 27) seafood prices are soaring across China, with freshwater prices up 20% in the first half of the year.

Learn more during The Future of Menus webinar on Aug. 10 at 2 p.m. ET, co-hosted by The Food Institute and DMA. Lizzy Freier, senior research manager of menu at Technomic,  will be joined by Cornell University’s Lilly Jan and Firebirds Wood Fired Grill’s Stephen Loftis in discussing more current and pending restaurant menu changes.