JUNEAU — Alaska’s seafood industry has a new captain at the helm of its main marketing agency.
Jeremy Woodrow, previously the organization’s communications director, officially took over as executive director of he Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute this June. He replaces former executive director Alexa Tonkovich, who left the position in December 2018 to pursue a master’s degree in international business.
In some ways, it’s the top of a long ladder for Woodrow. Born and raised in Juneau, he started as an intern with ASMI in 2001 and worked with the organization’s former public relations firm Scheidermeyer &Associates Alaska. After a stint in the communications department at the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, he returned to ASMI as the communications director in 2017.
Though he’s not in commercial fishing at present, he said his family has a long history in it. That connection has helped inform his involvement in the ever-changing fisheries of Alaska, and though ASMI stays out of fisheries policy, there are plenty of other tangles to sort out.
High on that list is the increasing volatility in fisheries. Salmon fisheries in particular are always fluctuating from year to year, but fishermen have had unpredictable disasters followed by banner years followed by disasters, which is a relatively new phenomenon, Woodrow said.
In response, some fishermen are looking to diversify their income or their fishing portfolios to help offset that uncertainty, he said. The fleet is consolidating as well, especially in the larger offshore fisheries.
However, Alaska’s wild seafood products have never been more valuable.
“While our fisheries have been fully exploited for several decades, we have seen the value continue to go up, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “That shows that there is value in the fish. There are other ways to gauge value than just the price of fish at the dock. More people wanting to get into it, the price of boats …. all that generates money to fisheries economies.”
Part of that is due to increasing seafood consumption in the U.S., but part is also due to the increasing price wild Alaska salmon has been able to command in markets. Salmon is the most valuable commercial U.S. species, with a total value of $688 million in 2017, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Alaska salmon accounted for 98 percent of landings in 2017. The average landing price for all species — the majority of which were pink salmon — was 65 cents, according to NMFS, but once those salmon are sent to the supermarket, consumers are paying significantly more for them than for Atlantic salmon or salmon from elsewhere.
That’s in part due to ASMI’s work over the years to promote the Alaska brand, Woodrow said. The state’s fisheries have a good story to tell: comprehensively managed fisheries, small communities and a fleet dominated by small boats and local fishermen.
“We have such a great generational story to tell, a management story to tell, all that, wrapped into an incredible place,” Woodrow said.
Things are changing there as well, though. The ongoing trade conflict between the U.S. and China has presented ASMI with a complex new marketing landscape. China is Alaska’s single large market for seafood, and the organization has spent about two decades building relationships with buyers and processors there.
A significant portion of Alaska’s fish are exported to China and reprocessed there, with most bound for either export to other world markets and the U.S. or for domestic consumption in China.
On top of that, other countries are increasing their salmon farming efforts and marketing in the U.S., attracting consumers with lower prices for salmon. Norway, for example, is ramping up efforts to market its salmon in the U.S., and Iceland is in the process of expanding its aquaculture industry for salmon.
ASMI has been clear about its intentions to remain in China, Woodrow said. With 1.3 billion residents and a rapidly expanding middle class, the country is too big a market to abandon because of tariffs. While the disagreements over trade have merit, the tariff battles have impacted seafood demand there, Woodrow said.
“We do agree that something has to change (in U.S.-China trade), but this conflict going on has definitely created extra headwinds for the Alaska seafood industry,” he said.
ASMI received a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop markets for seafood in other countries, focusing on Southeast Asia, Woodrow said. The organization has also established a presence in South America, with an office in Brazil and significant interest in seafood among people there. There’s also an opportunity to take some of the reprocessing market there, reducing some of the dependence on China for that service.
There are also opportunities for marketing other products. Mariculture is a growing industry in the state, with expanding interest in kelp and geoduck clam farming. Most of those products are currently bound for foreign markets, but there’s growing interest in the U.S., especially among younger consumers, who are more open to tastes for different palettes.
But it’s not only alternative products. Pollock — the single largest commercial fishery in the U.S. by volume — also has an opportunity.
“A great example is pollock roe,” he said. “I guarantee you very few Alaskans or Americans have ever eaten pollock roe, but pollock roe is incredibly popular in Japan … the size of the pollock roe is very similar to the size of fish eggs that you see on sushi. That’s a perfect segment for it to come into the U.S. market.”
The ASMI board announced Woodrow’s hire as executive director June 10, saying the board was excited to have a lifelong Alaskan to lead the agency.
“The Alaska seafood brand is as strong as ever and we are confident that Jeremy’s leadership will advance the direction and mission of the agency,” said Jack Schultheis, chairman of the ASMI board of directors, in the announcement.
Going into the role, Woodrow said one of the things he considers with each decision is how Alaska fishermen will accept decisions that ASMI makes, in part because the agency is ultimately paid for by the fishermen with state funding zeroed out over the past few years through budget cuts.
“Anytime that we have a marketing plan, I always keep in the back of my mind how will an Alaska fisherman react to this, because they’re always our first audience,” he said. “We have to make sure they understand they’re getting good value.”
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]