Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute looks to grow markets in Asia, Latin America

After several years of lower international exports for Alaska’s seafood, market experts are again looking to open more trade relationships overseas.

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute maintains relationships with harvesters, processors and distributors in the U.S. and abroad to grease the wheels for seafood sales from the state’s fishing industry. For years, the largest of those trading partners has been China. However, exports to China have dropped since 2017, in part as an effect of the ongoing trade war. For the past few years, ASMI has been pursuing new countries to develop partnerships.

Alaska’s seafood exports are still down in value, though recovered some after a low in 2020. The projected export value for 2021 was about $2.9 billion, up from about $2.6 billion in 2020. That’s still down from the high of $3.4 billion in 2017, and every year from 2011 to 2019 was $3 billion or higher. However, even in the low of 2020, Alaskan exports made up more than half of the total U.S. wild seafood exports.

Hannah Lindoff, the senior director of global marketing and strategy for ASMI, told the Alaska House Fisheries Committee on March 21 that the organization is focusing on the Southeast Asia and Latin American markets as potentially significant future partners, as well as one new project in Morocco.

“We are unlikely to ever find another billion-dollar market (like China),” she said. “We’re looking at a lot of small markets to fill that gap.”

ASMI was awarded $4.2 million this year from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Market Access Program. The organization is seeking a 55% match from the Legislature to access those funds this year.

Just before the pandemic, ASMI also received about $7.5 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its Agricultural Trade Promotion program. This was one-time funding, intended to help ASMI diversify away from the Chinese market, Lindoff said. Prior to the trade war, China was a nearly billion-dollar market for Alaska, some of which has found other outlets, including domestically. Some of the federal money was used to open a regional office in Bangkok, Thailand, to begin a full-scale marketing program in Southeast Asia, and to expand its existing Brazil marketing program to all of Latin America.

“ATP funding is still being used for these programs and will be available to ASMI for one more fiscal year,” Lindoff said in an email. “We have seen tremendous growth in exports to Southeast Asia and have overcome significant hurdles in Latin America, allowing that market to open up. We are exploring several avenues to help us maintain these programs without taking from others after the ATP grant ends.”

There are existing markets for Alaska seafood in places like Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, Lindoff said. Exports to Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, have been steadily climbing since 2018, reaching $140 million in value in 2022.

ASMI began working on expanding markets in Southeast Asia in 2016, where there were already exports at a low level. For three years, they worked with other U.S. seafood producers to make trips familiarizing local buyers with Alaska’s fish species and fishing industry. Since 2013, exports have nearly doubled to the region.

“The surprise with Thailand has been that they’re taking quite a bit of high-end product,” Lindoff said. “Prior to us doing our missions… it was mainly a market where you saw a lot of canning happening. Now, they’ve really taken to sockeye salmon.”

In addition to its existing market in Brazil, ASMI has been working on increasing exports to Peru, where there was significant extra reprocessing capacity. However, legal roadblocks there led to zero exports in 2020. ASMI has made a trade mission there to expand trade relationships and to meet with government officials to reduce those trade barriers in the future.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has thrown another wrench into Alaska seafood exports. Eastern Europe, and Ukraine in particular, have been major buyers of Alaska seafood for the past several years. Lindoff said the relationships they’ve built there have made watching the progression of the war even more difficult now.

“We have a lot of close trade members there, so it was particularly devastating for us to see their facilities being bombed, to see what’s happening with them,” she said. “And, of course, very difficult for Alaska seafood exports. … Exports to Ukraine were, not surprisingly, down 74%, but what we saw was that the volume came back and was displaced throughout the region so that the region was only down 20%.”

There are additional hurdles. New markets are always a risk for companies, especially small ones with fewer resources and connections. U.S. companies are competing with others who may have access to lower tariff rates through free trade agreements, and may be missing business ties or enough information to adequately reach the markets. Alaska suppliers in particular may have fluctuating supply depending on the year, which can make marketing difficult, and have to contend with higher freight costs and more logistics than companies closer to major markets.

Despite the growth overseas, the U.S. is still the primary market for Alaska seafood products. During the trade war, ASMI was able to shift some of its efforts toward finding other outlets domestically for seafood products. However, the U.S. traditionally does not consume as much seafood as other regions like Southeast Asia; Lindoff said ASMI has been working on educating U.S. consumers about the benefits of eating products like salmon, cod and halibut, but it’s hard to displace the love for other meats like chicken and beef. However, there may be other temporary factors affecting it as well.

“It’s hard to say that (the increase in the U.S.) is definitely the way the market is shifting,” she said. “During the pandemic, we saw a huge uplift in the U.S. market because people needed healthy protein, safe food, and because of shipping issues, the U.S. market was a stronger market for us. We also have a strong dollar right now, so again, the U.S. market is really strong.”

Contact Elizabeth Earl at [email protected].

03/30/2023 - 4:32pm