Total retail sales of fish and seafood products exceeded $14.7 billion in 2012, up from $13.3 billion in 2008, according to “Fish and Seafood Trends in the U.S.,” a new report from market research firm Packaged Facts.

Behind those figures, however, the industry finds itself at an uneasy crossroads. The growth in dollar sales was offset by declines in both unit sales and volume sales in most retail fish and seafood categories, with the exceptions of the frozen fish/seafood segment (which includes both prepared and non-prepared fish and seafood products) and frozen raw shrimp.

As of 2011, the most recent per-capita consumption data available, Americans on average consumed about 15 pounds of fish and shellfish per year, according to the Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

That figure represents a decrease from 15.8 pounds per capita in 2010, which itself reflects a drop from the 16 pounds per capita in 2009.

The recessionary economy of 2008–2012 takes some of the blame for the unit and volume sales slowdown. For example, consumer usage rates for typically lower-priced store-brand alternatives to branded fish and seafood products jumped from less than 4 percent in 2008 to more than 30 percent in 2012, as shopper wallets shrank and consumer spending caution surged.

But “other complications are also roiling the waters,” says Packaged Facts research director David Sprinkle. Consumers look to fish and seafood as a healthier source of protein than meat and poultry, yet they worry more about spoilage and contamination of fish than they do of meat. 

According to Packaged Facts consumer survey data, 15 percent of U.S. adults strongly agree and 25 percent somewhat agree that, to eat healthfully, they often choose fresh fish over meat or poultry. 

At the same time, 8 percent of adults strongly agree and 17 percent somewhat agree that they hesitate to buy fresh fish or seafood because of possible spoilage or contamination issues—higher rates than apply in the case of fresh meat or poultry.

In addition, marketers and retailers remain wary of aquaculture products even as they are urged by government and non-governmental agencies and marketers, retailers, and foodservice operators to be concerned about the sustainability of major fish and seafood species. 

In addition, as shown by Packaged Facts survey data, 23 percent of U.S. adults strongly agree and 28 percent somewhat agree that fresh fish and seafood are healthier than frozen—even as frozen fish (especially traceable, locally frozen fish) may be preferred by sustainability-prioritizing consumers, given the higher carbon footprint for fresh fish due to higher distribution and perishability costs. 

Alongside supply and sustainability concerns, the pace and robustness of the U.S. economic recovery will help determine how overall sales perform for fish and seafood and which market segments will enjoy the highest growth. 

Overall, Packaged Facts projects the U.S. retail market for fish and seafood to reach $17.1 billion by 2017, reflecting a compound annual growth rate of 3.1 percent.

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