« September 2007 Table of Contents
Case Study: Wild salmon
New product forms fuel Alaska salmon market expansion
By Thyra Porter
September 01, 2007
The mighty wild salmon, the fish of legend for many
cultures, has until recently in the United States suffered the
less-than-noble fate of being headed, gutted and shipped out
canned and frozen to countries like Japan. But a new wind
blowing across the country, or at least through the corner
offices of marketing gurus, has helped position wild salmon as
gourmet fare and has opened the market for wild salmon to
upscale eateries and retailers.
That wild salmon is now a featured entrée at some of
America's finest restaurants rather than simply a canned staple
on the back shelf of a pantry is an effort largely led by the
state of Alaska's savvy public relations and sustainable
And for Alaska fishermen, who catch an estimated 95 percent
of the wild salmon sold in the United States, gaining a new
market is a good thing.
"We're going for upscale, white tablecloth restaurants and
the Whole Foods Market sort of business," says Jack Schultheis,
sales and logistics manager for the Yukon Delta Fisheries
Development Association, based in the lower Yukon Delta
A majority of the fish caught by association members are
sold through Kwik-pak Fisheries, a Yup'ik, Eskimo-run company.
Most of their salmon was shipped to Japan as recently as five
years ago, says Schultheis. Now he estimates that 40 percent of
the company's production is sold fresh to high-end restaurants
or retailers in the United States, a line of business he notes
is "a tough market to break into, because we don't have a lot
of bullshit salesmen."
And while fresh salmon is still a small piece of the overall
market for wild salmon, it is a growing one, says
"We are improving every year in terms of placement. Going
from 0 percent to 40 percent in five years may be slow, but it
It is a line of business that also keeps up the price of
salmon paid to native fishermen, says Ragner Alstrom, executive
Alstrom points out that in the Yukon, with gas prices
approaching $7 a gallon, transportation costs are even higher
than in the Lower 48.
"With the costs of transportation rising, targeting high-end
restaurants and groceries is one way to pass on money to our
fishermen," says Alstrom.
Indeed, last year the price of fresh Alaska salmon fillets
rose to $4.34 a pound, a 32 percent increase over 2005 prices,
while H&G fresh prices approached $2.26, a 1 percent
increase. In terms of frozen product, H&G salmon reached
$1.45, a 12 percent increase from 2005, and fillets rose a
whopping 24 percent to $3.82 a pound during that time frame,
according to the state's Department of Revenue.
The big five
Five wild salmon species can be found on the market,
chinook, chum/keta, coho, pink and sockeye. The chinook, or
king salmon, which can stay out to sea for five years before
returning to their natal streams, has the highest oil content
and commands the highest price, especially if troll-caught on
the ocean. Chum is least expensive and usually caught with
seines or gillnets. Coho salmon are mostly troll-caught,
although some fish are taken by seines and gillnets. Pink
salmon is the smallest of the wild salmon but is also the most
plentiful and is used mostly for canning, while sockeye, also
known as red salmon, is used for premium canned salmon and is
mostly caught with gillnets.
Wild salmon is heavily regulated in California and the
Pacific Northwest, where it crops up on endangered lists. While
California in past years has exceeded Alaska's catch of chinook
salmon, says David Goldenberg, CEO of the California Salmon
Council, severe limits set in 2005 led to the 2006 season being
declared a disaster by the state. California's chinook salmon
harvest dropped from an average 6 million pounds before 2005 to
1 million in 2006.
Some $60.4 million in disaster relief has been established
for California, Oregon and the Indian tribes who rely on the
salmon industry in those states, says Goldenberg.
Though California salmon prices have soared along with the
decline in supply to, "upward of $6 to $7 a pound from about $4
for wild chinooks," Goldenberg says, or around $28 a pound at
retail, "it is a niche market here until our supply
While the lower 48 states struggle with supply issues,
Alaska is on track to have its seventh strongest salmon run on
record in 2007, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and
Game, which it credits to the state's long-standing
Alaska has mandated fish production on the sustained-yield
principal in its constitution since its acceptance into the
union in 1959, and is the only state to do so.
The salmon season started May 1, and as of Aug. 10,
preliminary Alaska commercial salmon catches, saw 463,000
chinooks; 44.8 million sockeyes; 1.2 million cohos; 74.2
million pinks and 12.9 million chums landed, according to the
The Marine Stewardship Council's sustainability
certification of Alaska's wild salmon fisheries has allowed
Alaska to embark on a multi-million-dollar marketing campaign
effectively branding the state as the premier supplier of wild
salmon, and plays heavily to both the topics of healthy eating
and sustainable supply.
The effort has included television ads running on the Food
Network featuring the actor/economist/comedian Ben Stein. The
ads target an audience of college-educated women, ages 35 to 54
with an annual household income of at least $75,000. The spots
play to an environmentalist sentiment as Stein urges viewers to
"Grab a fork, there's a lot more out there."
In a celebratory theme, the arrival of the first run of wild
Alaska salmon in the spring is feted with the same amount of
enthusiasm by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute as French
wine producers who rejoice in the arrival of Nouveau Beaujolais
Other ASMI campaigns play up the health benefits of wild
salmon through heart-healthy recipe promotions; an
ASMI-sponsored survey conducted by the Hale Group revealed that
restaurant patrons showed a "strong preference" for wild
seafood on menus; point-of-sale material is available for
retailers; and alliances with top chefs and recipe development
also are employed as ways to market wild Alaska salmon.
"Our mission is to raise the value of the harvest and one of
the ways we can do that is to try to lift as much of our
harvest as we can out of the commodity category," says Laura
Fleming, ASMI's communications director.
"In the old days, Alaska's salmon harvest found its way
either into a can, or was headed and gutted and frozen,"
Fleming notes. "Now, while much of the harvest is still canned
in addition to producing more fillets, which are in demand in
the United States, our industry is adding value with new
One area of growth is products that save time for consumers
like salmon burgers, smoked products and boneless skinless
portions in a variety of sizes, Fleming adds. Fully cooked
grill-marked portions, some with smoke flavor, are playing
well to the foodservice industry, says Fleming.
But just as a rising tide raises all ships, the high-profile
Alaska campaign also helps build awareness of the benefits of
wild salmon versus farmed salmon, at a time when imports of
farmed salmon from Chile and other countries are the chief
competition to the wild fish, says the California Salmon
While California fisheries operate on a much smaller public
relations budget, "If Alaska can raise awareness about wild
salmon, the more power to them," Goldenberg says.
And Alaska's wild message has gotten through to chefs like
Maria Hines, owner of the Seattle restaurant Tilth, who buys
her wild salmon off the docks from a Seattle fisherman.
Hines, who was named one of Food & Wine magazine's "Top
Ten Best New Chefs in America" in 2005, looks for fresh local
food for her menu. To that end, she values her relationship
with her local fish supplier.
"It is a family-run business," she says, adding that she
values knowing where the fish served at Tilth is coming
Eco-conscious consumers in Seattle and other cities across
the country are willing to pay more for wild fish.
"My customers ask for wild salmon because they want
sustainability and flavor," says Hines.
Thyra Porter is a freelance writer based in Cape Elizabeth,