Fresh salmon sales have soared throughout the pandemic, and experts expect that trend to continue in 2022.

Over the past year, salmon sales grew 10.7% to reach nearly $235 million, according to IRI and 210 Analytics data for the 52 weeks ending Nov. 28. Fresh salmon accounted for 34% of all fresh seafood sales over the past year, or 56% of all new seafood dollars in 2021.

“In other words, salmon is punching (sizably) above its weight in terms of contributing to growth,” said 210 Analytics Principal Anne-Marie Roerink. “In addition to generating significantly more dollars, salmon sold 6.8% more units in this time period versus a year ago and volume rose 6.3% versus a year ago and a whopping 28.8% versus two years ago. And in November, salmon notched its highest sales for the month, rising 11.5%. Salmon sales were 2.5 times that of number two, crab.”

Individual grocery chains are realizing even higher gains in the sub-category. Overall fresh seafood and salmon sales at Giant Eagle have soared 40% since 2019, and between 3 and 4% in 2020, said Shawn Oliver, seafood category manager for Giant Eagle.

“The most important thing is that we didn’t give any [sales] back in 2021,” Oliver said. "We wondered what it was going to be like when people were going back to restaurants.”

Meanwhile, Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix will finish this year “up over last year's record sales,” said Guy Pizzuti, business development director, seafood, for Publix.

“Growth is primarily driven due to the fact that while restaurants were temporally or maybe permanently closed during the height of the pandemic, customers learned how to prepare seafood at home. They recognized the ease and value of preparing seafood at home and that consumer habit has continued through 2021.”

"With the pandemic, people learned how to prepare salmon at home, instead of going to a restaurant to get a quality seafood meal,” Oliver agreed.


The reasons behind salmon’s growth

In addition to consumers’ growing comfort with cooking seafood at home, there are myriad reasons for salmon’s growth, including the fish’s health benefits and relative value, analysts and retailers say. Salmon is an “entry fish,” so it has been popular among consumers just learning how to cook more seafood at home, according to Roerink.

Plus, “salmon is also big on menus of nicer restaurants which are exactly the channel that hasn’t made near as much of a comeback as fast food or other restaurant types,” Roerink noted. “Much like high-end steaks, seafood does not travel well for delivery or pickup, so people who enjoy seafood are more likely to transfer that restaurant salmon meal to the home.”

In addition, while other protein prices have soared, the price of salmon has remained favorable.

“With the increasing cost of ground beef, steak and chicken, salmon has increased a little bit, but it has been much less than some of these other proteins,” Oliver said. “That has led to the consumer seeing salmon as a more economical meal choice for their family.”

And let’s not forget the numerous health benefits of salmon. With the COVID-19 pandemic, “people are taking their health more seriously,” Oliver said. “Salmon is packed with Omega 3 fatty acids.”

In a recent Datassentials poll, the number one thing consumers are looking for in their foods is immunity-building characteristics, according to Jennifer Bushman, chief strategic officer at Kvaroy, Norway-based Kvaroy Arctic, which produces sustainable ocean net pen salmon that is Best Aquaculture Practices-certified.

“Salmon was number one on the list.”


Value-added sales grow

Retailers are also adding unique value-added salmon offerings to boost shoppers’ interest in the category. Publix has realized double-digit growth in value-added salmon sales over the past year, primarily driven by simple entrée options such as marinated/seasoned salmon that allows the customer to select their sides, Pizzuti said.

Giant Eagle has had success with value-added items from Seattle-based Orca Bay Foods, such as garlic parmesan salmon portions, and honey jalapeno salmon. Blackened and bourbon salmon portions from Miami-based Camanchaca, added in spring 2020, “have also done extremely well for us,” Oliver said.

Many retailers are featuring salmon on cedar planks ready for the grill, and salmon is the dominant seafood offering in most of the microwave and oven ready dishes, Roerink said.


Giant Eagle focuses on private label, sustainable  

After success with branded Kvaroy Arctic salmon, Giant Eagle is looking to expand the salmon into its private label offerings. Kvaroy, certified by the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check Program, has double the omega-3 content of other farmed salmon, according to the company.

“Kvaroy, in my opinion, is the most sustainable salmon on the planet. It has a .48:1 fish-in, fish-out ratio,” Oliver said.

In addition, Kvaroy’s salmon is Fair Trade USA-certified, which is important to Giant Eagle shoppers, according to Oliver.

“Giant Eagle has a huge focus on sustainability, so having the opportunity to expand our Fair Trade offering was a no brainer.”

The retailer is working with a company to develop three other Fair Trade certified species. While Kvaroy’s fresh salmon is already featured in Giant Eagle’s Nature’s Basket line, the grocery chain is working to transition frozen Kvaroy salmon into its private label offering.

Similarly, Kvaroy has seen an uptick in sales due to its relationship with Fair Trade USA.

“Some of the largest retailers in the US specifically support Fair Trade Certified products. Our salmon sales directly related to the fact that we are Fair trade certified has resulted in several million additional pounds sold into a retail program at a premium price,” said Chris Cumming, vice president of sales for Kvaroy.


Publix expands sustainable farmed category

Publix is focused on carrying a variety of sustainable salmon, including Bluehouse salmon from Miami-based Atlantic Sapphire.

“Sustainability continues to grow in importance with consumers. There is growth in the number of customers wanting to know more about the products they purchase,” Pizzuti said.

The Bluehouse salmon comes from Atlantic Sapphire’s land-based recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) salmon farm in Miami. The farm utilizes water from the Florida Aquifer, purifying the water so the farm does not need to use antibiotics or pesticides.

Bluehouse is a “quality salmon that is being well received by the consumer,” Pizzuti said. "We recognize the importance of domestic aquaculture and the need to support these operations. With the Atlantic Sapphire farm being a Florida-based operation, it was a natural fit for Publix.”

In addition to the Bluehouse salmon, Publix carries its traditional farmed salmon from Chile, its GreenWise farmed salmon, and ready-to-cook salmon items.


2022 Predictions

Looking ahead in 2022, retailers and analysts predict continued growth in the salmon category, “as long as supply holds up and inflation remains similar to that of competing protein offerings,” Roerink said. “Salmon benefits from a strong (and carefully built) health halo, and with New Year’s resolutions and the continued concern over COVID-19, I expect strong salmon demand.”

Oliver also expects continued demand, as consumers “want to be healthy.” To ensure strong sales in the category, “I would encourage us as an industry to try to keep prices down, which is challenging with logistics.”