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Alaska's seafood industry: evolving and advancing: Alaska exported 846,312 metric tons of seafood to countries around the world, accounting for $2.2 million in 2004.

Marketing Alaska seafood products has never been easier. In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture altered the dietary guidelines on the time-honored food pyramid and for the first time specifically, recommended two servings of seafood per week. This recommendation, combined with the connotation of Alaska as being a pure place that encompasses nature, wide open spaces, big mountains, wildlife and hardy fishing families, enhances the trust in Alaska's wild-caught fish from people all across the world.

Alaska commercial fishing market has many things going for it. For one, its fish stocks are very well managed. Despite fluctuating ocean conditions and weather changes, businesses across the world know they can rely on Alaska season after season and year after year to deliver fish with excellent quality, color and texture. This sustainability drives profits. Businesses want to be able to plan ahead and incorporate items that will continue to offer them the chance to make a profit.

A MODERN TOUCH

In addition, advancing technology, in Alaska has helped fisheries become more efficient in the production, processing and distribution sectors. A larger volume offish can now be caught at lower costs with innovations such as Global Positioning Systems, gear-monitoring sensors and fish-location equipment.

The modern touch of technology also has helped create fusion between fish and other tasty ingredients, which launched hybrid dishes such as smoked salmon chili cheese steaks, pepperoni made of salmon, and salmon burgers. Technology also has aided in delivering fish products from Alaska in resealable pouches (that are sometimes found inserted into cans), new methods of cooking (such as cooking fish frozen rather than thawing first to save time), and new marketing campaigns that make fish appealing to children (such as teaming up with Disney for promotion). Technology also has made it possible to create ever-popular boneless-skinless products.

"A lot of products have come to a new day in the sun. Technology has made it possible to provide a high-quality product, not just with onboard processing, but also in the plants," said Laura Fleming, public relations director at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. "The whole idea is to retain the inherent flavor and texture characteristics of our wild-caught fish."

THE EXPORT PICTURE

Most of Alaska's fish is exported to other countries. According to data supplied by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, Alaska exported 846,312 metric tons of seafood to countries around the world, accounting for $2.2 million in 2004. The same data indicates that Alaska's largest international export market is Asia, particularly Japan, followed by the European Union, Australia/New Zealand, Mexico and Canada. Asia accounted for 532,046 metric tons and $1.4 million in 2004, with Japan importing 308,847 metric tons and $855,067 in 2004.

The majority of fish exported to Japan is groundfish, accounting for 177,884 metric tons and $493,422 in 2004. The most popular groundfish is surimi, which accounted for 101,203 metric tons and $164,748 in 2004. Following surimi and other groundfish are salmon, NSPF (a designation used for unspecified species, usually canned pink salmon), flatfish, herring and crab.

According to the Alaska Department offish and Game, the year 2004 ranked nine out of 30 for the number of commercially harvested Alaska wild salmon since 1975. The year 1995 had the highest number of harvest fish, with approximately 217 million, compared with 167 million in 2004, and only 28 mil lion in 1975.

The commercial fishing industry in Alaska remains one of the most vital and economical industries in Alaska. The United States seafood industry is one of the world's largest exporters of seafood, and Alaska plays a significant role in that. In addition to generating a vital amount of revenue, the industry also provides tens of thousands of jobs.

THE JOB MARKET

Fishing, like many other industries in Alaska, is often seasonal. Most harvesting occurs in the Southwest, followed by the Southeast and the Gulf of Alaska. In fact, according to 2002 data (the most recent year for which data is available) from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, more than half of all harvesting jobs occur with commercial salmon fishing in the Southwest region. Salmon fishery provides the most employment from May through September.

While salmon provides the most jobs, groundfish leads employment in that there are a more constant number of jobs month to month. The groundfish fisheries provide a monthly average of 1,455 jobs (according to 2002 data). Most of the salmon and groundfish harvesting jobs are in the Southwest region. In the Southeast area, halibut provides the greatest employment with a monthly average of 1,120 jobs. During the winter, one in 10 harvesting jobs are with crab fisheries.

Overall, the fish-harvesting industry provides a monthly average of 6,510 jobs statewide (based on 2002 data). When both harvesting and processing employment data are combined together, it accounts for 6.3 percent of private-sector jobs, which is more than the oil and gas industry, and nearly as many as the construction industry. Fish harvesting is a very seasonal position, with high employment periods in July and lows in December. InJuly 2002, 17,090 jobs existed, which is more than three times the monthly average for the year.

THE BIG PICTURE

A variety of vessels can be found encircling the waters of Alaska. In the offshore fishing industry, giant floating processors, which process but don't catch fish, and tenders, which deliver fish to land and offshore processors, are plentiful. There are also many catcher/ processor vessels, which both catch and process the fish at sea. Three main types of salmon-harvesting boats exist: purse seiners, gillnetters and trollers. Pot boats, which catch crab and bottomfish; and longliners, which catch halibut, black cod and other groundfish, are popular. Smaller trawler boats that catch groundfish but do not process them typically comprise as many as 20 crew members, depending on the region and the fishery. More than 70 onshore processing plants are in Alaska; a few plants employ more than 1,000 workers, but the average plant employs approximately 40 people.

Some of the firms that make up Alaska's fishing industry are small, independent, family run companies. Others are larger, and increasingly more and more firms are consolidations, mergers and strategic alliances. One of the reasons for these consolidations is primarily due to the competing aquaculture industry. The salmon aquaculture industry reshaped Alaska's salmon industry because of the huge amount of farmed salmon on the market, which reduced prices for Alaska salmon. These prices resulted in a downward spiral of salmon prices, put many people out of work, and caused Alaska's salmon industry to consolidate at all levels. Although much of the consolidations have already occurred, there are fewer players in the processing sector for salmon. Many of the salmon companies that have made it have done so by diversifying into other species that are up-and-coming.

BETTER THAN FISH FARMS

Technology plays a big role with aquatic farming, allowing large amounts of fish to be grown in small amounts of space. Fish farming has long been a controversial subject. Some argue that much of Alaska's fish is caught in remote areas, which results in expensive transportation costs in getting the product to market, unlike fish farms that are usually located very close to processors. This not only drives up the costs, but also some argue that this delay could compromise the quality of the fish. On the other hand, many consumers want assurance that their fish are healthy and natural, and were not raised in captivity under technological conditions.

Despite the competing fish farm industry, many of Alaska's fish prices are very strong. According to Fleming, halibut is doing very well and the season now extends from mid-March to mid-November. "There is a huge demand on the domestic market," she said. "That availability throughout the year has really changed things."

She also nodded to the black cod sector, which has been quite healthy. "Traditionally, black cod is exported to Asia, although the U.S. market is emerging," she said.

The waters off Alaska's coast are reputed for their purity and Alaska uses that as a way to market its fish industry. The pollack fishery in Alaska is the largest fishery in the world. Alaska offers wild-caught seafood from pure water in a clean environment, which is a huge benefit for those in Europe and Asia who want assurance that they're eating healthy and pure products. "We offer delicious, healthy natural seafood that matures in the wild at a natural pace, gets lots of exercise so its texture is good and firm, and swims in clean, cold water that gives it purity," explained Fleming.

The Bering Sea Aleutian Islands pollack fishery recently met the standards of the Maline Stewardship Council, which is an international organization that developed a set of environmental principles for measuring fisheries to assess if they are well managed and sustainable. Having this ranking provides consumers with assurance that they are purchasing seafood that was caught in an environmentally responsible way. The Gulf of Alaska fishery is currently being considered for this achievement too.

The state of Alaska has demonstrated its commitment to providing data about fish by way of a fish-monitoring project. The data indicated that Alaska's seafood is free of contaminants, which only adds fact to the mystic behind Alaska's reputation.

"I think the commercial fishing industry has a bright future. Americans are looking for heart-healthy offerings," explained Fleming. She points to the quick-service sectors that are looking to respond to consumer's desires for healthier products.

EASY COOKING

In addition to wanting healthier products, many people also want convenience. There's been a huge growth in private-label frozen seafood in the country, and a large chunk of these private labels contain Alaska products. "There's been a large number of new products being introduced, including boneless, skinless seafood portions in a resealable poly bag that can go right from the freezer into the saute pan; there's no need for thawing," she said. "This is a tremendous convenience item." Because these products are frozen only once, the quality isn't compromised and all the characteristics are protected.

"Alaska is producing what today's customers want," explained Fleming. Value-added products such as stuffed salmon fillet or a variety of sizes of salmon burgers are all examples of how Alaska is responding to the needs and demands of today's consumers. Pacific cod has become quite popular because of the reduced harvests of Atlantic cod. "This species found a niche in the overseas market, especially in Spain and Portugal where they have traditionally used a lot of bacalao or salted cod," said Fleming.

The commercial fishing industry in Alaska has faced challenges with the rise of fish farmed products, especially in the salmon sector, but has evolved and is continuing to keep abreast the demands of today's consumers. Commercial fishing is moving to become a market-driven food consumption industry and continues to send its message of having remarkably pure water surrounding its wide variety of fish in naturally sustainable quantities. With new technology on hand, even entrepreneurs are excited about producing innovative, value-added products such as hybrid dishes and more convenient cooking methods. The fishing industry in Alaska is ready for change and consumers are reaping in the health benefits. "Things are catching on," said Fleming. "What we're looking at is a leaner, meaner seafood industry."
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Title Annotation:Fishing; markets
Author:Coppola, Doreen R.
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Apr 1, 2005
Words:1889
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