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One Man's Opinion: Alaska’s salmon industry has a new friend

Instead of sending their sockeyes to Japan Alaska
    salmon processors now have other options. And although they
    don't like to admit it, they can thank the Chinese for the fact
    that they do.
By Peter Redmayne
August 01, 2006

The dog days of summer are here, and that means the Alaska salmon season is in full swing. With farmed-salmon suppliers putting their customers on allocations and big U.S. and European buyers demanding MSC-certified fish, it would seem that the Alaska salmon industry has recovered from the doldrums of the past decade.

This winter, trollers in Southeast Alaska pocketed as much as $6 a pound for their kings - a nice payday and a far cry from the $2 they got a few years ago. Then, in May, Copper River fishermen received more than $5 a pound for their highly touted king salmon and almost $2 for their reds - more than they have ever received before.

But those fisheries account for less than 1 percent of Alaska's salmon haul. To find out how the industry is really doing, you need to look at the high-volume fisheries like Bristol Bay, where almost 200 million pounds of reds were landed this July. So if the salmon industry in the Last Frontier has rebounded, why did bay gillnetters get a dime less for their fish this summer when the catch was about the same?

Blame the Japanese, the traditional market for frozen sockeyes and longtime whipping boy for the Alaska salmon industry. With some bay fish left over from last year and all the Chilean coho they need readily available, the Japanese are in no hurry to buy, so Alaska processors are having to hang on to their fish. Sounds like the same old story. But it isn't.

Instead of sending their sockeyes to Japan and waiting for Japanese buyers to tell them all winter how weak the Japanese market is, Alaska salmon processors now have other options. And although they don't like to admit it, they can thank the Chinese for the fact that they do. These days, Alaska processors can send their fish over to China for further processing. Or they can send it to Seattle and hang on to it for a while and play the Chinese off against the Japanese.

In just the past three years, U.S. salmon exports to China have soared fivefold, from about 6,000 metric tons to more than 30,000 metric tons. After the salmon season wraps up this year, China will be behind only Japan as the largest single export market for Alaska salmon (in 2005, Japan imported about 50,000 metric tons of U.S. salmon). And given the way things are going, it may not be long before China overtakes Japan.

Most of the salmon going to China are the cheaper species, like chums and pinks. In China, they are turned into boneless blocks, fillets and portions for the U.S. and European markets. Since the Chinese can do it so cheaply, a big, new market for convenient, affordable frozen-salmon products has developed.

But more-expensive fish like sockeyes are increasingly going to China, too. This summer, Chinese processors were snapping up sockeyes to meet retailers' demand for higher-quality, MSC-certified wild-salmon fillets and portions. The Chinese are also producing lightly salted sockeye fillets (via a process known as tei-en) and exporting them to Japan, since they can process them much more cheaply than the Japanese.

Alaska processors this summer were hanging on to some of their fish longer not because they had to, but because they wanted to, betting that increased demand would boost market prices. With more competition for their fish, they were enjoying some of the best margins they have seen in a long time. It may take awhile for Bristol Bay fishermen to see $1 a pound again, but clearly, the tide for the Alaska salmon industry has turned, and the Chinese are the reason.





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