By Diane Toops, News & Trends EditorConsumers are hooked on seafood â¦ with qualifications. They like fresh fish, but are hesitant to buy it, and they flounder in the kitchen when they attempt to cook it. Nearly half of all Americans eat more seafood than they did five years ago, according to a Harris Interactive survey of 1,000 Americans, commissioned last September by Red Lobster, Orlando, Fla. Nearly seven in 10 respondents said they see seafood as an appealing alternative to meat or chicken, and most believe it is very healthy. Indeed, the Commerce Dept.’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service confirmed those findings. Consumption of seafood in the U.S. increased 7.1 percent in 2002 (the most recent compilation by the agency), and per capita consumption grew almost a full pound from the year before to 15.6 pounds. If you factor in this past year’s low-carb frenzy and increasing interest in proteins, one expects that opportunities in this category run deep.Fresh fish makes up more than 80 percent of this market’s dollar sales, according to research by Mintel International, Chicago. The frozen seafood supermarket category is now worth $1.6 billion. Frozen fish products are gaining ground, particularly as options and selections increase. Along with traditional fish sticks and cocktail shrimp, breaded, unbreaded and seasoned fish fillets and frozen entrÃ©es featuring seafood are catching the wave. According to Information Resources Inc., Chicago, frozen seafood dinner solutions gained 8.1 percent or $121.2 million in sales in the 52 weeks ended October 5, 2003, the second highest proportional increase in dinner solutions tracked. But one of the big problems for branded manufacturers is that private label has angled some 38 percent of dollar share of the category. Frozen seafood manufacturers have been unable to establish a brand connection with consumers. Trying to do just that is Gorton’s Inc., Gloucester, Ohio, a unit of Japan-based Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd. The Gorton’s Fisherman hopes to capture a larger share of the frozen entrÃ©e market with new upscale products including Classic Grilled Salmon with smoky grilled flavors and Lemon Butter Grilled Wild Salmon. Also trolling for sales is Rich Seapak, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rich Products Corp., Buffalo, N.Y., with its new Shrimp Scampi. Meanwhile, in the non-frozen category, Charlie the Tuna, StarKist’s spokesfish, is putting his popularity to the test in Advertising Age’s search for America’s favorite brand icon. The magazine acknowledged him as an early vote-getter in a poll that should be complete in mid-September. "Charlie is known in nine out of 10 households," says Lisa Henriksen, vice president of marketing for StarKist. "He has all the qualities you look for in a candidate and favorite brand icon â he’s honest, has a strong work ethic, strives for perfection, represents what America is looking for with his flavor pouch and has a loveable sense of humor." Hmmm, maybe we should all go out and vote for Charlie for president. Meanwhile, I’m going fishing for my daily Omega-3s!