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Top species: Wild salmon

What nature provides, the industry will market to eager buyers

By Joanne Friedrick
April 01, 2010

There's a level of unpredictability about wild salmon, since nature determines just how many fish will be available for harvesting in any given year. But that unknown factor gives the fish a certain cachet among restaurateurs, retailers and consumers alike.

Every year the industry makes its best estimates on which species and runs will be plentiful and which will be limited, and this in turn influences demand and price.

While half of the world's wild salmon comes from Alaska, Laura Fleming, communications director at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute in Juneau, says that on a global level, wild Alaska salmon accounts for only 1.2 to 1.3 percent of global salmon production. Farmed salmon from countries such as 
Norway and Chile still 
accounts for the lion's share of the world's salmon supply, she says.

And, in the wild category, Russia "is coming on strong," she adds. Russia, Canada and Japan are the other major wild salmon producers beyond Alaska.

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, projections for all species and all areas of Alaska are for 138 million fish to be caught this year, down from last year's total catch of 161 million fish.

The trend, says Fleming, is for more kings and sockeyes to be harvested this year - both considered to be higher-value and fine-dining salmon species. The coho catch will remain about the same, she says, at 4.3 million fish, while the pink supply is expected to fall considerably, dipping to 69 million fish, versus 96 million landed in 2009.

But, notes Fleming, those are just projections. "It all depends on nature - the water temperature, the flow and the like," she says.

Echoing Fleming's comment about the burgeoning Russian market, Tom Sunderland, director of marketing at Ocean Beauty Seafoods in Seattle, says the growth of the Russian pink salmon harvest "is a bigger wild 
card than normal." What Russia brings to the market, he says, will likely influence prices, as will the continuing wobbly economy.

Still, he says, demand should be strong for wild salmon, both in fresh-frozen applications and in value-added cuts.


Value-adding expands

A big growth area, says Sunderland, is filleting at the plant level for retail sales. "We are focusing on meal solutions and on how simple we can make it for the home cooks to make fish," he says.

On the foodservice side, he says, the emphasis is on developing products that reduce back-of-the-house labor. "We try to produce it so most of the ingredients are already there," he says.

Fish and sauce are available in sous-vide applications, so all chefs need to do is cook the fish and sauce it. This application, he says, is popular for mass-dining occasions, such as weddings, buffets and in casinos.

Ocean Beauty was one of several companies that recently participated in the Alaska Symphony of Seafood, sponsored by the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation.

Of the 14 products submitted for this year's competition, seven included wild Alaska salmon. Companies vied for top honors in foodservice, retail and smoked product categories, as well as for the People's Choice awards at galas in Anchorage and Seattle.

Ocean Beauty took third place in the smoked-products category with its Smoked Salmon Alfredo Buffet Entrée Kit. Salmon products were also the winners for first and second place in that category, with Ivar's Seafood winning with its Wild Alaskan Smoked Salmon Chowder, and Gerard & Dominique Seafood coming in second for its Agave-Lime Smoked Salmon. The first- and third-place retail winners were also salmon-based items: Aqua Star's Top-Crusted Tortilla Salmon took top honors, while Ocean Beauty's Sea Choice Mandarin Orange Salmon was third.

Sunderland sees a boost in the market for wild salmon due to the consumer's continued focus on healthier eating.

"The healthy-eating trend is working in our favor," he says. "We're starting to see traction in the marketplace." Healthful eating translates to a long-term trend toward buying more seafood, adds Sunderland.


Building a niche

Within the greater wild salmon arena, boutique fish have come to the fore, such as the Yukon River kings caught by Yup'ik Eskimo fishermen and marketed by Kwik'Pak Fisheries of Emmonak, Alaska. Ruth Carter, sales manager at Kwik'Pak's Seattle office, says the Yukon king season, which begins in late June to early July, is all about a fish that is higher in omega-3 fatty acids than any of the other salmon species.

"The reason it is so high is that when [the salmon] enter the river, they have a 2,000-mile trip to their spawning ground, so they are loaded with oil," says Carter.

The Yup'ik fishermen catch the fish at the mouth of the river, she explains, "so they are super oily."

A typical Yukon River king contains 5.2 grams of omega-3s per 100-gram serving, versus Copper River sockeye at 3.5 grams and Copper River kings at 2.5 grams, according to laboratory tests.

About 300-400 fishermen are harvesting Yukon River kings, says Carter. The fish are their sole source of income and a big source of sustenance for their families. So fishermen take their share of the catch and sell what remains.

In marketing the fish, Carter has focused on the nutritional aspects, teaming with Oldways Preservation Trust, a nonprofit food-issues think-tank in Cambridge, Mass., dedicated to educating consumers about healthy eating patterns. Oldways and Kwik'Pak are conducting dinners throughout the United States this spring that feature Yukon kings on the menu. At the events, nutritional experts talk about the benefits of omega-3s and the sustainable-fishing model.

Dinners are often tied in with supermarket promotions, says Carter, noting that when Kwik'Pak conducted a dinner in Houston, fresh-frozen Yukon River kings were featured at Central Market at $8.99 per pound.

The salmon is fully traceable, so retailers and restaurants can track product movement through the supply chain (with the technology and assistance of Seattle firm Trace Register). Kwik'Pak is also in the process of seeking Fair Trade certification, which indicates fishermen are paid a fair wage for their catch, she says.

The Yukon River kings typically sell for 50 cents to $1 per pound more than other salmon, Carter says. "We market it as a boutique fish; 'get it while you can,'" she says.

Another niche fish in the salmon portfolio is the Copper River king.

"We definitely have high demand for kings the first two weeks of May," says Beth Poole, executive director of the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association in Cordova, Alaska.

Even though the Copper River produces kings, sockeye and coho from May to October, Poole says the early kings are still highly sought after and bring premium prices at the season outset in mid-May - usually wholesaling for $14 to $15 per-pound and retailing for $30 per-pound or more. Prices drop after the initial spike in interest and sales, she says.

Copper River sockeye, meanwhile, "is a good alternative" to kings, she says. While Copper River sockeyes go for about $8 a pound, sockeyes caught elsewhere are usually around $4 a pound, she says.

Like the Yukon River kings, Copper River fish are among the highest in omega-3s, says Poole, and have attracted the interest of top chefs and food writers. The Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association is funded by its fishermen through a 
self-assessed 1 percent mar-
keting tax on their annual catch. Incorporated in 2005, it was created to promote Copper River salmon to retailers, foodservice outlets and the media.

One of the outcomes of regular promotion and education, says Poole, is that there is now a greater understanding of the length of the Copper River season and the variety of species pulled from the river.

"All Alaska salmon is wonderful," says Poole. "Our job is to tell the regional story." She notes that while the Pacific Northwest and California coast have been the traditional focus for promoting Copper River salmon, "other areas are becoming aware and are our targets now."

Sunderland from Ocean Beauty says the salmon industry has benefited from a proactive approach by the Alaska government to keep it afloat.

"When the Alaska salmon industry was down [10 years ago], they gave us tax breaks so we could invest in the technology to do more value-added fish." Those tax breaks have been extended in three- or four-year increments and are scheduled to sunset in 2011.

Both Carter and Poole note their organizations have worked with native fishermen to improve harvesting and processing techniques, so the quality of the final product continues to build.

"Fishermen and processors need to stay on top of [quality control] to get the highest-quality product possible," adds Poole.

Stores and restaurants are continuing to examine their sourcing policies, says 
Fleming, citing Target's recent decision to feature only wild salmon.

"They are interested in buying sustainably harvested wild salmon," she says, "and they are looking for Alaska salmon because of this."

Jon Speltz, owner of three Wild Salmon Seafood Markets in Seattle, says Alaska provides the bulk of his salmon offerings, although he also carries some sal-mon from Canada and Washington. At some in-season points in July Speltz has all the species (king, sockeye, pink, coho and chum), and regional and local variations on them. "It gets to the point where it's way too many choices," he says.

Seattle locals are interested in salmon from specific areas. "For us, location is important. The farther out [into the United States] you go, just the fact that it's Alaskan is sufficient. But for us, region is about as non-specific as we can go," says Speltz.

The market's customers tend to buy fillets over steaks 9 to 1, and finished fish more than whole by about two-thirds. Part of the reason people don't buy whole fish is the price: A whole king can sell for $50. But that doesn't stop Speltz' customers. "I'm still always amazed at how many people do buy whole kings."

Salmon in all forms is the No. 1 seller at Wild Salmon, whether it's fresh fish in season or fresh-frozen product in the winter. Sales dip when barbecuing ends, he says, not because the fish are frozen versus fresh.

Find other SeaFood Business articles with wild salmon here.

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine


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