St. Paul Pioneer Press
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Prices Put Herring Lovers In A Pickle

Fish seller blames poor Baltic catch – but mostly dollar’s decline – for higher costs of Scandinavian delicacies

Uff da. Today is Syttende Mai – Norwegian Independence Day – and the world might be running a little short of herring.

That is a concern in Scandinavia, at least, where the spring catch of Baltic herring has fallen to disastrous levels. Closer to home, the Olsen Fish Co. of Minneapolis says there should be ample supplies of North Atlantic herring from Canadian waters to keep makers of pickled herring snacks and appetizers stocked for the coming year.

But consumers should expect to pay a little more.

Chris Dorff, president of the Minneapolis herring and lutefisk company, said that fishing crews have complained about dwindling catches of herring in the various fisheries, but that major customers have been able to secure supplies well in advance of the pickling process.

Prices have crept upward. Retail prices for the company’s Olsen’s, Viking and Ye Old Kings brands of pickled herring now range from between about $3.00 for a one-pound jar to around $3.50, compared to $2.69 to $3.00 a year ago, Dorff said.

He blamed the rising pries partly on the supply of fish, but mostly on the weakened U.S. dollar and higher energy costs that influence everything from transportation to refrigeration and packaging.

“If I were to put my finger on one thing it would be the value of the dollar,” he said. “That is making our fish a lot more expensive, even though our suppliers are trying to hold the line.”

Olsen Fish, a subsidiary of Noon Hour Foods of Chicago, sells more than $5 million a year in herring and lutefisk. Most of its herring comes from New Brunswick.

Data on herring supplies and consumption are hard to come by since the fish are used in so many ways: They are pickled, processed into sardines, smoked and consumed in various forms by the British, including as kippers. But scientists who watch the world fisheries are concerned about dwindling catches.

Scientists for Seafood Watch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California noted n an August 2004 study that the herring catch of the northeast U.S. coast dropped to 81.6 million metric tons in 1998, the last year for which there is data, down from 108.2 million metric tons in 1996. The catch off the eastern coast of Canada, meanwhile, dropped to 20.1 million metric tons in 1998, down from 32 million metric tons in 1992 and 44.1 million in 1989.

The crunch on herring supplies now comes from the spring catch in the Baltic Sea that is used for extracting roe and for making surstromming, or fermented herring, which is a Swedish dish often referred to as the world’s smelliest food.

In the current issue of the Swedish online newspaper, fish processors complain of insufficient supplies to meet surstromming needs for the Swedes’ annual August and September traditional eating. An official of a Swedish fish company told the newspaper that one of his fishermen caught only 15 metric tons of Baltic herring last year, when he would normally catch about 50 tons in the same waters.

Dorff said he doesn’t believe the shortage of potent-smelling fish product will have any impact of the U.S. or Canada, where he doubts surstrommng is a legal food. Its consumption is banned in apartment complexes in Sweden, and some say Norwegian independence means never having to eat the stuff.

Most of the herring processed in North America is served in a wine or cream sauce, although there are dozens of recipes in Northern Europe, where it is usually called sil or sild.

“Profit margins have shrunk, and people are reluctant to pass along higher costs,” Dorff said. “Consumers should be grateful and for now, enjoy as much as they want.”

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