Seafood is Alaska’s top export by far, usually topping $3 billion in sales each year to 120 countries around the world, and comprising 55 percent of our nation’s total seafood exports.
Credit for the state’s export sales goes mostly to the international program run by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, or ASMI, which runs eight regional offices in Japan, China, Brazil, London, Spain, France, Germany and Eastern Europe.
The overseas marketing reps, or OMRs, work under contract with ASMI to coordinate hundreds of seafood promotions each year to build the Alaska brand.
“We work closely with overseas trade groups, food service and HRIs (hotels, restaurants, institutions),” said Hannah Lindoff, ASMI international director. “We also do promotions with chefs, schools, and caterers, and some programs have advertising elements as well.”
China is Alaska’s largest seafood export market in terms of volume and value accounting for 35 percent and 27 percent, respectively in 2015. The fish isn’t ending up on Chinese dinner plates, however, as up to 90 percent of the seafood is sold to secondary processors which send finished products to other markets around the world.
Japan is Alaska’s largest and most established market, Lindoff said, and the bulk of ASMI’s shoestring budget goes to maintaining customers there.
“Alaska is facing lots of competition and a declining consumer base in Japan,” she added.
Europeans rank second as customers for Alaska seafood, especially in the U.K.
“Alaska salmon has been going to the U.K. for over 100 years and canned salmon is a traditional product for them. It’s part of their culture, but it is a declining market,” Lindoff said.
Alaska’s newest marketing program is in Brazil where ASMI has been able to capitalize on its Japan connection.
“Brazil has the largest population of expat Japanese in the world so we already have a population there that is familiar with Alaska seafood. We do several trade shows in Brazil, including a Japan Trade Show every year,” Lindoff said.
Spain is another new and growing buyer for Alaska seafood.
“This is a country where Alaska salmon is competing to be seen as better quality over farmed fish,” Lindoff said, adding that ASMI has taken advantage of a big downturn in farmed production from Chile due to a deadly fish virus.
“The growing trend for sushi and Asian cuisine also has really helped Alaska salmon gain a foothold in Spain,” she said, “and it is a traditional market for Alaska cod.”
ASMI also is trying to expand the brand in Eastern Europe to make up for losses from an ongoing Russian embargo on U.S. seafood, by building a presence in Latvia, Estonia, Romania and Ukraine.
It’s a tough go, Lindoff admits, because many nations simply are not familiar with Alaska or its seafood.
“We think of ourselves as having the greatest seafood in the world, but we are only 2 percent of the world supply and we are up against a lot of competition,” she explained. “Especially in Europe where Norway can provide a lot of farmed fish and they have a very aggressive marketing agency. It’s not a fair fight.”
Norway’s annual marketing budget tops $50 million derived from a small tax on its seafood exports. That compares to an ASMI export budget of less than $7 million from a mix of grants and federal dollars. The State of Alaska contributes $1 million to ASMI’s overall budget of roughly $22 million, of which $16.5 million is paid by the seafood industry. The state plans to zero out its funds to ASMI in the coming fiscal year.
Another marketing challenge is that many nations are only newly aware that Alaska is part of the United States.
“It wasn’t until Sarah Palin was running for vice president in 2008 that some people learned that Alaska was part of the U.S,” Lindoff said with a laugh.
She added that the popularity of the “Deadliest Catch” television show also “did tremendous things for creating awareness of Alaska seafood.”
More recently, that recognition has helped increase buyer interest because Alaska (and the U.S. in general) is regarded as a source of clean and wholesome “free from” foods.
“Especially in countries like China where they have a lot of food contamination problems, Alaska seafood is seen as a trusted source,” Lindoff said.
She added that ASMI is partnering with several other regional groups as part of a USA global seafood initiative with a focus on Southeast Asia.
“It’s definitely an advantage having a clean and pure environment in Alaska,” she said.
Other sales benefits are coming from the use of eCommerce, especially in China, where the appetite for Alaska seafood is growing.
“Our marketing dollars can go much farther online. It allows us to widely advertise Alaska’s core messages and we’ve seen millions of dollars in sales through eCommerce in China,” Lindoff said, adding that the same strategy is paying off with canned salmon in the U.K.
To boost more brand awareness, ASMI also brings chefs and seafood savvy press people from Asia and Europe to Alaska to generate free publicity when they go home.
Overseas marketing reps from eight countries are scheduled to arrive in Kodiak on Aug. 7 to tour processing plants, visit a remote salmon fishing site and hold brainstorming sessions.
“Visiting Alaska is always one of our most powerful tools,” Lindoff said. “It’s great when you have limited time and budget to go to a place like Kodiak where you get so much of the seafood industry in one place.”
Bringing in the chill
Bristol Bay fishermen are chilling their fish like never before, and they are setting up to do even more. Two former longtime Bay fishermen are converting a 150-foot helicopter logging barge into a floating fish processor with plans to operate it next summer on the Ugashik River, about 85 miles from the nearest processing plants at Naknek.
Co-owner Ben Blakey said the barge will freeze up to 300,000 pounds of whole sockeye salmon per day and employ about 20 people, compared to the 200 or more needed to run a shore-based processor.
“There are a lot of communities in Alaska that can’t support a full-time processor with that many people because they don’t have enough volume,” Blakey told KCAW in Sitka. “If an outfit like this can get by with less overhead and lower labor costs, they might be able to park it in front of an isolated area and process the fish at a more effective cost.”
The refurbished four decker will provide ice and help reduce the time the salmon spend in the fish hold before being delivered, especially for the many boats that don’t have onboard chilling systems, said co-owner Pat Glaab, who built the fish processing plant at Leader Creek and Silver Bay Seafoods at Naknek. The revamped barge is his 11th fish processor.
“There’s nobody in the world who wouldn’t say that there isn’t a portion of that Bay fleet that doesn’t have the ability to take care of this fish properly. We feel this thing will fill that need,” he said.
Glaab and Blakey operate as Northline Seafoods out of Sitka’s industrial park, where they are testing out the revamped plant on pinks this summer. If it’s successful, the duo plans to build at least three more brand new barges at a cost of about $5 million each.
Red flag from afar
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross this month dismissed a report from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that concluded New Jersey was violating a conservation plan for summer flounder, also called fluke.
The decision, which allows New Jersey to harvest nearly 100,000 more summer flounder, marked the first time the federal government has disregarded such a recommendation by the commission, according to the Boston Globe.
Congress established the multi-state commission 75 years ago to ensure the region’s fisheries are managed sustainably. The commission lowered fluke catch limits after it found that their population was down almost 25 percent since 2010.
Ross, who oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, overruled the commission and allowed New Jersey to go ahead with its plan.
Outraged members of the commission, fishery managers, and NOAA officials said it was unprecedented for a Commerce secretary to make a decision without seeking their input.
The broader impact of the decision remains unknown, the Globe said. Fishery managers worry that Ross’ decision sets a precedent for states to reject the commission’s findings and appeal to the federal government whenever they don’t like what they’re hearing.
Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected]