IN spite of the new wave of popularity of seafood in the United States, escalating prices of this winter's catch may cause a switch back to hamburger, steak, and other meats. Except for lobsters, the price of most fish coming from the New England area has been higher in price during the winter months because of two main factors: a three-week strike by fishermen in the seaport of New Bedford, Mass., one of New England's largest seaports; and harsh winter weather that makes fishing, particularly in small boats, difficult.
More than 650 New Bedford fishermen stopped fishing Dec. 27 in a dispute with boat owners on how to divide profits from their catches. They are also asking for the right to look at catch reports.
New Bedford is noted for its scallops, although other kinds of fish are caught as well, including flat fish such as sole, flounder, and sand dab.
In the New England area there are boats going out from other ports -- such as Boston and Gloucester -- so fish is available, but priced high. Expensive restaurants around the country will still have a supply of whatever fish they need because they are willing to pay, explains George Berkowitz, head of Legal Seafoods Company, which has three seafood restaurants and fresh-fish markets in New England. But moderate-price restaurants will be using frozen fish until prices come down.
Added to the effect of the strike is the fact that fish prices are always higher this time of year. ``It's only normal,'' Mr. Berkowitz says. ``This goes on every year when the weather gets cold and stormy.
``But lobster prices have not gone up this season,'' he explains. ``While lobster is selling right now at $5 and $6 per pound, the price of some fish -- gray sole, for example -- is higher than lobster at $8 and $9 a pound retail. Boston scrod, which is actually small codfish, is $4.99 a pound -- and that's terribly high for cod,'' Berkowitz adds.
But if the weather is bad for the fishermen, why isn't it just as bad for the lobstermen who go out in small boats? Berkowitz explains that ``the demand for lobsters is down in the winter. Everybody wants lobster in the summer. All the tourists want it and the local people think of it more as a summer food, too.
``But fish prices will probably moderate this week because the weather is getting warmer. More boats will go out. More fish will come in. The prices will go down.''
According to Bob Rubin, a partner in the Chicago Fish House, a wholesale distributor, ``it's anybody's guess as to when prices will come down because there are so many things to consider.
``The strike in New Bedford does affect us here in Chicago,'' he says. ``But it's not just the strike. There's been poor weather on the West Coast as well as in the East. And there's talk of the government putting a duty on fish imported from Canada. This would be another reason for prices to go up.
``Last year there was a tremendous demand for fish. It's more popular than ever. So the weather, the government, the strike, and the increased demand all come into the picture.''
Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.