FISH FACTOR: China poised to snap up even more Alaska seafood
China holds big promise to become a top customer for Alaska salmon, and not just for the bright red fillets.
Since 2011 China has been the No. 1 customer for Alaska seafood with purchases nearing $800 million and comprising 54 percent of all Alaska exports to China.
In Chinese food culture, fish symbolizes abundance and prosperity, which plays into a growing middle class that now earns the equivalent of about $25,000 in U.S. dollars a year.
That gives buyers significant disposable income to spend on more high-end foods, such as salmon. Add in increasing public concerns about food safety and pollution, and it means Alaska is well poised to send even more salmon to China.
A photo-filled Alaska Sea Grant report — called Consumer Preference and Market Potential for Alaska Salmon in China — gives a glimpse of that potential in a country with 1.4 billion people. Researchers from the University of Alaska/Fairbanks and Purdue spent over three months surveying more than 1,000 urban supermarket shoppers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to get their results. Here’s a sampler:
While nearly 40 percent of Chinese consumers said they eat seafood at least once a week, only about 9 percent eat salmon that often, and 7 percent have never eaten salmon. The most popular fish consumed by Chinese is carp.
More than 66 percent considered seafood to be healthier than other foods, and more than 25 percent preferred wild-caught seafood. Nearly the same number did not pay attention to or understand the difference between wild and farmed fish.
Almost 40 percent of Chinese consumers said they eat salmon in restaurants and prefer it raw, as sashimi or sushi. Nearly 18 percent eat salmon in the same uncooked ways at home.
On average, consumers ranked the method of harvest as the most important salmon attribute, followed by environmentally friendly certificates, color, the method of preservation, country of origin, and fat content.
More than 68 percent said they would be more likely to buy Alaska salmon after knowing it comes from a clean environment and is sustainably harvested.
Nearly 59 percent of Chinese urbanites said they definitely or probably would buy Alaska salmon if it were available at an acceptable price. They also find appealing parts of the fish that most Americans toss in the trash.
Chinese culinary traditions include cooking fish heads, tails, and bones for various soups and stews. Supermarket prices showed salmon heads selling for $4.99 (U.S.) per pound, salmon skins at $2.46, and salmon bones at $5.10 per pound.
The report said those low-value parts can add significant value to Alaska seafood exports to China.
“The survey responses show that consumers, if presented with more opportunities to purchase Alaska salmon, would favor the wild fish because of its health benefits, pristine source waters and sustainability,” said Quijie “Angie” Zheng, a study co-author along with H. Holly Wang, Quentin Fong, and Yonggang Lu, all professors within Alaska’s university system.
The salmon potential has not been lost on Norway, the world’s top producer of farmed fish. The national fish news site Seafood.com reports that Norway plans to export 343 million pounds of farmed salmon to China by 2025, worth about 4.4 billion yuan, or $646 million (U.S.).
Salmon at sea
Alaska is the second-largest salmon harvester in the North Pacific, topped only by Russia, and leads all other nations for releases of hatchery-reared fish.
That’s according to the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission which revealed last month that salmon catches reported by its member countries — Canada, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the U.S. — remain at all-time highs.
Since 1993, the commission has tracked the abundance and origins of chum, coho, pink, sockeye, chinook, cherry salmon and steelhead trout in the North Pacific, Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk.
Salmon abundance is based on the aggregate commercial catches of the five nations which in 2016 totaled nearly 440 million fish, just slightly less than previous years.
Russia ranked No. 1 for total salmon catches at 51 percent (967 million pounds), U.S. fleets took 33 percent at 617 million pounds, and all but 19 million pounds of the U.S. catch came from Alaska!
That was followed by Japan at 13 percent (245 million pounds), 3 percent from Canada (47 million pounds) and less than 1 percent of the North Pacific salmon catch was taken by Korea.
Pink salmon made up 41 percent of the total catch by weight, with Russia hauling in 75 percent of the pink pack. That was followed by chums at 33 percent, sockeyes at 21 percent, coho at 3 percent and Chinook salmon made up 1 percent of the North Pacific catch.
Hatchery releases of salmon from NPAFC member countries topped 5 billion fish in 2016 (38 percent of the total salmon catch), similar to numbers over the last three decades.
The U.S. released 37 percent of the hatchery fish (1.9 billion fish), followed by Japan at 37 percent (967 million), Russia at 19 percent (282 million) and Canada at six percent (22 million fish).
Sixty-five percent of the hatchery releases were chum salmon, followed by pinks at 24 percent. Chinook, sockeye and coho salmon releases were 5 percent of less.
Alaska salmon fishermen can get rebates on pingers aimed at keeping marine mammals away from their gear. The six-inch, battery operated tubes are tied into fishing nets and transmit animal-specific signals every five seconds.
“Pingers can be really helpful to alert the whales to something in front of them, so you have less entanglements, explained Kathy Hansen, director of the Southeast Alaska Fisheries Alliance.
SEAFA received a $25,000 Hollings Grant from the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation to fund the pinger program, which pays out $25 rebates for up to five pingers per permit per vessel. The pingers retail for about $100 each, which adds up by the time you put the number needed for the length of a salmon net.
“A Southeast gillnet that is 200 fathoms long needs at least five,” Hansen said.
The rebates are good for any Alaska salmon fishery. Along with Southeast Alaska, Hansen said, pingers are also used by fishermen at Kodiak and Sand Point.
Hansen uses pingers in her salmon gear and swears by them.
“It’s not 100 percent effective — kind of like a red stop light. Ninety-nine percent of the people will stop, and there’s that 1 percent that might not. But we’ve used them on our fishing gear for about six years and are completely sold on them,” she said.
And, she added, pingers don’t act like a dinner bell for whales, nor affect the salmon catch.
“In our personal experience and all the people we’ve talked to say they have not seen any kind of dinner bell effect with the pingers,” Hansen said. “And they do not scare the fish away. We constantly see fish clumped up next to the pingers.”
The rebates will continue while the funds last. Get forms from the SEAFA website and at local gear shops.