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Species Focus: Wild Salmon

Marketing programs push the cache of all five Pacific species, offering options for every budget

Wild salmon's image as a healthful, natural protein has boosted demand for the fish nationwide. - ASMI
Rick Ramseyer
August 01, 2005

“It’s a very positive market,” says Shanahan. “People who five years ago were saying, ‘I’m not interested in wild salmon’ are now calling and saying, ‘I need fish.’” 

Bob Drobatz, the meat, seafood and poultry buyer for Mollie Stone’s Markets in the San Francisco area, likens the chain’s full-service seafood cases to a game of Monopoly. And occupying Boardwalk — one of the highest-value properties — is wild salmon.

“Day to day, week to week, it’s the biggest dollar draw in the meat department,” says Drobatz, who estimates the Mill Valley, Calif., company sold nearly 160,000 pounds of fresh or frozen wild salmon last year, and, thanks to a new, eighth store, could approach 200,000 pounds in 2005.

Drobatz’s assessment isn’t unique. Interest in wild salmon is on an upswing in retail and foodservice outlets coast to coast. Sales are spurred in large part by the health benefits of omega-3-rich seafood, the latest concerns about farmed fish, the abundance of salmon in prime production areas such as Alaska and the growing number of species- and region-specific marketing programs that leverage the cache of the five Pacific varieties: chinook (king), chum (keta), coho (silver), pink and sockeye.

“I’ve been in the wild salmon business for a long time, back in the years when we were sort of a second-class citizen,” says Richard Mullins, senior marketing manager for Orca Bay Seafoods in Seattle, which carries mostly frozen sockeye, coho and keta. “It’s nice to see we’re in a better position.”

Pat Shanahan, owner of Shanahan Strategic Planning and Communications in Seattle, cites site-specific marketing as one of the key reasons for the turnaround.

“There are great stories about these programs, and a lot of excitement you can create, either in a restaurant or supermarket, that will bring people in,” says Shanahan, who has worked extensively on salmon promotions in the Pacific Northwest.

She’s referring to draws like Alaska’s Copper River, which over the past 20 years has come to symbolize the start of wild salmon season in late May or early June. The hoopla over the fishery has triggered a fishing frenzy and a subsequent “who’s-got-‘em-first” rush in supermarkets and high-end restaurants.

Among a host of other marketing programs in Alaska, some of which are benefiting from recent legislation that provides a mechanism for funding regional seafood development associations, are troll-caught kings and cohos from Southeast Alaska under the Real Salmon brand; sockeyes touted as Kenai Wild from the Kenai Peninsula and Cook Inlet; chums sold as Arctic Keta; and Kodiak pinks labeled as the Star of Kodiac.

Also making waves are chinooks from the Taku and Stikine rivers, which are available to commercial fishermen for the first time in nearly three decades. And then there’s the Yukon, where kings are prized for their 30-plus-percent oil content, which helps fuel their 2,000-mile journey upriver across remote northern Alaska.

“It’s a gourmand’s fish that’s now available to everybody,” says Tony Webber, president of Pescamax in Seattle, the sales and marketing partner for Kwik’Pak Fisheries, a nonprofit producer of fresh, frozen and smoked Yukon River salmon.

At press time, the Yukon commercial harvest was set to begin in mid- to late June, and was expected to yield 20,000 to 60,000 kings and 10,000 to 75,000 coho. (Last year, Seattle dealers paid from $6 to $8 a pound for the first batch of  Yukon kings.)

For 2005, Alaska’s total salmon harvest, which accounts for roughly 95 percent of the U.S. salmon catch, is projected to total 180.6 million fish, up 8 percent from 2004.

Through late June, Copper River had yielded 921,000 fish, including 887,000 sockeye and 32,000 chinook, and was tracking a couple hundred-thousand fish ahead of last year, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Per usual, prices dropped as the Copper catch progressed. Wholesale prices, f.o.b. Seattle, were $4.75 for sockeye and $8.75 for kings in early June, down from $9.50 and $13.50, respectively, in mid-May.

For some seafood stakeholders, however, Copper River exemplifies out-of-reach pricing. Wild salmon marketers thus are beginning to push a range of less-expensive alternatives.

“There certainly are fabulous products, like some of the kings that you want to put on the menu at the highest possible price, but the next big thing is to be able to say, ‘If you’re doing a casual meal, you might want to try this fish,’” Shanahan says. “It’s just like choosing wine. There’s something appropriate [for every occasion].”

Consumers, too, are becoming more salmon savvy.

“They’re learning they can have a number of good, unique eating experiences, not only species to species, but river to river,” says Webber of Pescamax.

McCormick & Schmick’s Restaurants, with 55 locations in 24 states, is tapping that trend with its second annual “Northwest Wild Salmon Runs,” a summertime celebration of around 20 different fisheries that range from Alaska to Northern California.

“Our guests can have a Stikine salmon today and one from a run in Washington tomorrow,” says Gregg LeBlanc, the Portland, Ore., company’s director of marketing. “They’re very appreciative of what’s beyond Copper River, and that there are secret gems.”

Not surprisingly, salmon is a longtime favorite at McCormick & Schmick’s, which sells both wild and less-pricey farmed varieties. Farm-raised Atlantic salmon, in fact, is one of the most popular selections year-round, “allowing us to come in at a $17 or $18 dinner entrée,” LeBlanc says. Conversely, wild salmon entrées can go from $20 to $24 and beyond. “It’s a little higher than we’d like,” LeBlanc notes, “but you have to pay for that freshness.”


MSC label a marketing plus 

Another factor in wild salmon’s resurgence dates back to 2000, when the Marine Stewardship Council deemed Alaska’s salmon fisheries sustainable. (MSC recertification, required every five years, is now under way.)

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute intends to build on that momentum with its first foray into consumer advertising. ASMI’s summer campaign, which kicked off with print ads in Bon Appetit, Cooking Light and Sunset magazines, shows salmon fillets on a grill, under the headline, “So wild, it practically flips over on its own.”

Alaska isn’t the only producer of Pacific salmon, of course; California, Oregon and Washington also have commercial harvests, as do countries like Canada, Russia and Japan.

In California, despite strong salmon returns, the renowned king season got off to a sputtering start due to a complicated series of restrictions aimed in part at protecting fish returning to the Klamath River.

The result was the closure of prime fishing grounds along a swath of the Northern California coast for all of June — the traditional height of season — albeit the harvest was set to commence in early July.

Longer term, the California Salmon Council in Folsom is among the groups working to secure MSC approval of the state’s salmon fishery.

“We hope that by next season we’ll be ready to rock and roll,” says David Goldenberg, the council’s CEO. “MSC certification would be very significant to open up new domestic and international markets.”

Health and flavor fuel sales 

Regardless of where it’s sourced, wild salmon also continues to benefit from gloomy reports about farmed fish — including the May release of a study warning consumers to limit farmed salmon consumption due to dioxin concerns.

Still, instead of pitting wild salmon against farmed, many industry players choose to focus on the taste and health benefits of wild salmon, especially heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

“It’s counterproductive to go negative,” says consultant Shanahan. “It’s confusing to consumers, and they end up eating [other proteins].”

Nonetheless, Town & Country Markets in Bainbridge Island, Wash., which has had a wild-only policy since 2002, hasn’t shied away from the controversy: It has a brochure that lays out the rationale for its stance, including red flags about farmed fish. And the strategy appears to be paying off.

“Wild salmon is the No. 1 seller in our seafood case year-round,” says Chris King, seafood specialist for the company, which offers fresh, frozen, canned and smoked salmon in its six stores.

“We prefer large Alaskan troll kings and sockeyes and silvers, but we also sell chum and pink,” King adds.

In mid-July, Town & Country prices for 11-and-up kings were $10.99 a pound for fillets, $9.99 for steaks and $7.99 for whole fish, while 5-and-up silvers were $6.99 a pound for fillets, $5.99 for steaks and $4.99 for whole fish.

Some foodservice outlets are wild at heart as well. Anthony’s Restaurants in Bellevue, Wash., which has 21 eateries in the Northwest, has an “only wild” sticker on its menus.

“It’s been a corporate policy as long as I can remember, and I’ve been here 23 years,” says Lane Hoss, vice president of marketing.

Country Kitchen International, meanwhile, introduced its first-ever wild salmon sandwich in the fall of 2004 and then repositioned it for a “Catch Alaska” promotion that ran from February through March.

The grilled sandwich, which is now on Country Kitchen’s permanent menu, is $5.99, and a salmon chipotle salad goes for $7.29.

“We’ve had really nice usage,” says Eric Girard, director of marketing for the family-style chain in Madison, Wis., which has 165 units in 26 states.

Quick-service restaurants also are fishing for wild salmon customers. Charley’s Grilled Subs in Columbus, Ohio, began offering a wild salmon sandwich ($4.49 to $4.89) in April, when it launched an eight-week “Alaska Salmon Sub…It’s Wild!” campaign.

“No QSR has implemented something like this nationwide,” says Betsy Berman, Charley’s marketing director, noting participation by about 180 locations out of nearly 240 in 39 states.

The response to Charley’s salmon sub was a bit muted in the Midwest, but on the West Coast, “the sandwich at some stores accounted for up to 9 percent of sales,” Berman says.

Moreover, QSR giant Subway in Milford, Conn., featured an applewood-smoked wild Alaska salmon sub, a salad and a wrap in several hundred units during Lent in parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Those items remain on the menu in most locations.

All told, industry representatives sound bullish about wild salmon’s return.

Find other SeaFood Business articles with wild salmon here.

August 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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