Where did all the seafood go?

For many, summer means seafood. Personally, I love to indulge in a lobster roll or two in the sunshine.

However, in the United States, certain seafood is hard to comeby this year due to skyrocketing prices. For example, king crab, blue crap, lobster, and scallops have experienced a 50–100% increase in market value.

Menus are beginning to look a lot different because of it. Rather than passing along these costs to diners, many restaurants are instead choosing to remove these items from the menu all together.

So let’s deep dive into what’s causing this problem.

Labor shortages.

The seafood industry is no stranger to challenges in obtaining labor. The work is difficult and the environments can be harsh, which has created a limited supply of employees. Most fishermen in the US are older than 40, and few young people are entering the field.

When restaurants shut down during the pandemic, demand evaporated from the industry — resulting in financial losses that drove fishermen to seek work elsewhere, such as construction. Now that COVID restrictions have lifted, these workers are overwhelmingly staying in their new careers — opting to earn comparable pay in a safer workplace.

Other key positions, like processors, have been difficult to fill for similar reasons.

Rising supply chain costs.

There are challenges up and down the seafood supply chain that are driving up costs for restaurants.

Let’s start at the ports. The lifting of COVID restrictions, as well as a surge in imports, is creating major congestion. As such, some boats are forced to queue for unpredictable amounts of time before they are able to deliver their shipments — creating expensive delays.

There are also issues in transportation — like high fuel and freight costs — that are being compounded by a lack of drivers. There are also difficulties in securing critical materials. For example, prices for cod are rising due to a shortage of shipping containers.

Climate change

This summer, regions across the US have experienced record-setting heat, which has critically impacted fish habitats. For example, hundreds of thousands of young salmon have died in two rivers in California as a direct result of the warming temperatures. To protect populations, limits are being placed on how many fish can be caught. Some areas are going even further and implementing fishing restrictions based on water temperatures. This is contributing to major deficiencies in seafood supply.

Increased demand

During the pandemic, many at-home chefs became more comfortable cooking seafood — sending retail prices up 19% over a 13-week period this spring.

This has also put wholesalers in a position where they have to supply two busy sectors: the food industry, and retail markets. With the aforementioned inventory shortages, these suppliers are stretched thin, and buyers must pay the price, literally. In Hawaii, for example, the price of a pound of ahi tuna has nearly doubled over the past year.

Unfortunately, for many of these challenges, time is both the seafood and restaurant industries best remedy and biggest adversary — especially as they look to rebound after a difficult 2020.

In the meantime, let us all practice patience when our favorite fish dishes are not available, and celebrate good seafood whenever we can get it.

Danilo Diazgranados is an investor, collector, and lover of fine wines and a member of the prestigious Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a fraternity of Burgundy wine enthusiasts.

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