Institute continues to push benefits of wild Alaska salmon

Alaska’s salmon industry is being hit hard by farmed salmon, but Alaska’s seafood marketing group has new initiatives underway in hopes of regaining some of the lost market position.

Ray Riutta, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute since last August, says he hopes to expand marketing and promotions building on ASMI’s current themes:

Wild-caught fish from Alaska, reared in clean, pollution-free waters is a healthy, natural food, rich in heart-friendly omega-3 fatty acids; and The state’s fisheries are well managed and "sustainable," not depleted like major fisheries elsewhere. These are ASMI’s key messages and Riutta said he is cautiously optimistic U.S. consumers are now beginning to pay attention.Riutta is a retired U.S. Coast Guard vice admiral who was in charge of the Coast Guard’s Alaska District, and is familiar with Alaska’s fishing industry.ASMI’s new initiatives may not turn the tide against the flood of farmed salmon coming into the U.S. and overseas markets Alaska once dominated, but they may help Alaskans carve out higher-end niches among consumers interested in organic foods and the sustainability of natural systems."Sustainability is getting into the mainstream," Riutta said. "For the first time, major metropolitan newspapers and consumer magazines in the U.S. are carrying feature stories on the differences between wild salmon and farmed salmon and the impact that farmed salmon is having on the Alaska salmon industry," he said.At least some of that results from press kits sent by ASMI to 800 food editors, and trips to Alaska by influential food writers hosted by the institute. "The message that Alaska salmon is abundant and that it comes from pure waters is finally getting onto the radar screen," he said. "There is a steady increase of people for whom it’s an issue."Environmental groups in the U.S. and Europe are now urging consumer groups to be aware of the depleted and overfished state of most of the world’s major fisheries.The London-based Marine Stewardship Council has certified Alaska’s salmon fisheries as sustainable, and many Alaska salmon products carry the MSC label on their packages.ASMI doesn’t formally link its message with those of the groups like Audubon Society and the Environmental Defense Fund, but it does dovetail with the green theme."We want to make sure our products are favorably positioned to take advantage of this," said Laura Fleming, who coordinates ASMI’s public relations programs.There is one direct relationship with a green group, however. ASMI works with the Monterey Chef’s Collaborative, an organization of environmentally aware chefs, which conducts workshops that raise awareness on food resources that deplete ecosystems.Specialty retailers are also buying into the green message.One is Wild Oats, a Colorado-based chain with 99 retail outlets. Another is Whole Foods, an organic foods chain with 125 outlets.Both have run promotions with ASMI featuring the health benefits of wild-caught salmon as well as sustainability of the resource. During 2001 the promotions boosted Whole Food’s sales of Alaska salmon by 83 percent in the chain, Fleming reported.Whole Foods has featured fresh Alaska salmon for two summers now but ASMI has now convinced the chain to feature frozen salmon year-around, according to Linda Driscoll, the Institute’s assistant retail sales manager.Promoting frozen is a new initiative for the institute, in fact. Riutta said a major new marketing program is being developed around the "Cook it Frozen" theme.Working with food consultants, including Phoenix Food Consulting Ltd., an Anchorage-based firm, ASMI has developed new techniques and recipes for cooking fish straight out of the freezer without waiting for the fish to thaw.The goal is to speed preparation of fish, which is important to busy consumers these days, and to overcome the traditional consumer bias against frozen foods.ASMI hopes its "cook it frozen" strategy will undercut a huge marketing advantage held by farmed fish, which is year-around availability.The initiative has been in the development phase for about six months and is now being expanded, Riutta said.It fits right into a new trend in the U.S. food business, that of major retailers expanding their private labels, food packaged under their own brand name, and featuring frozen seafood.Alaska seafood, including coho salmon, cod, halibut, sole, King and snow crab, are already included in some of these, Riutta said."We see tremendous opportunity for Alaska products in the frozen seafood case," he said.Another key to expanding sales of Alaska fish is by developing new products, like salmon burgers or nuggets, in addition to the traditional ways of selling salmon as "headed and gutted" whole fresh or frozen, or in cans.Alaska processors have been moving in this direction and have had products like skinless/boneless salmon portions and pink and chum salmon sold in a plastic pouch. Now more fillets are being frozen and sold, and new food products made with salmon are being rolled out.Processors keep new product development under tight wraps -- the industry is highly competitive -- but Riutta said Trident Seafoods had a new frozen salmon burger at the Boston Seafood show last month that attracted a lot of attention.Ocean Beauty Seafoods, another Alaska processor, also had new products at the show.Riutta expects more new products to be featured at the big European Seafood Exposition in Brussels next month.ASMI will have a booth in Brussels as it has it years past. This year 14 Alaska processors will send marketing representatives. Every year several million dollars in sales are conclued at the Brussels exposition, with more in follow-up sales.New products also give ASMI more entry into upscale outlets, which used to exclusively feature farmed salmon.Mainstream U.S. food companies are now paying more attention to Alaska salmon, too. Chicken-of-the-Sea, a major distributor, has done well with a new canned pink salmon product, Fleming said.The fish is from Alaska but it is processed in Thailand where labor costs are low, she said.ASMI isn’t ignoring the traditional markets for salmon, either. The institute regularly does seasonal promotions in cooperation with retailers, but has recently been working at special events, like the Southern Women Shows, a series of large gatherings that attract 25,000 to 30,000 people at each show.A recent show in Memphis was attended by 25,000. ASMI brought along Alaska women salmon harvesters who did cooking demonstrations with new recipes, including an easy-to-make "fishwich.""Our goal is to convince people to buy one or two more cans of salmon a week," Riutta said. The Institute does eight of the shows a year. Besides Memphis, this spring ASMI will be at shows in Nashville, Tenn., Richmond, Va., Raleigh, N.C. and Novi, Mich.These efforts are aimed at reinforcing the traditional markets. "People in a lot of these places, like the South, have never stopped eating canned salmon," Fleming said. "There are similar pockets of longstanding demand in parts of New England."ASMI also works with food service companies. A major new customer this year is Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the nation’s largest food service operator in national parks. The company sells 8 million meals a year in its concessions in places like Yosemite National Park and the Grand Canyon, and this year will offer a special menu featuring Alaska salmon, Fleming said.Another new initiative is in forging marketing relationships with others, Riutta said. When Alaska Airlines expanded its service to Denver last year, the airline worked with ASMI in hosting a "mini-trade fair" at Denver’s airport.Local food service buyers were invited to meet Alaska fish processors and the airline’s cargo representatives."Alaska was very pleased with the results, and we may do it again in Denver," Riutta said. Alaska also now flies to Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Boston, and recently added service to Newark, N.J., a gateway to New York City, and Orlando, Fla.These direct air links from Alaska to major U.S. market areas offer considerable potential for faster, less expensive air delivery of fresh Alaska seafood, and Alaska Airlines is anxious to exploit the new cargo sales possibilities, Riutta said.
04/13/2003 - 8:00pm