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Species Focus: Wild salmon

Retailers and restaurateurs in the Lower 48 look north to Alaska for seasonal salmon promos

Promotional efforts are paying off in increased
    consumer demand for Alaska salmon. - Photo courtesy of ASMI
By Rick Ramseyer
August 01, 2006

It's safe to describe Jeremy Mc­Lachlan, the executive chef at Salty's Seafood Grill on Alki Beach in Seattle, as an unabashed fan of wild salmon.

"I love the color, the flavor, the fattiness … and how it cooks," McLachlan says.

Wild salmon, in fact, is a huge seller at all three Salty's restaurants. The Alki and Portland, Ore., locations each use 10,000 pounds per year, and the Redondo Beach site in South Seattle goes through another 6,000 pounds.

Salty's typically offers wild salmon - predominantly kings, plus some sockeye - from mid-May until early fall and has up to eight salmon dishes on the menu. Last month, one of the entrées at the Alki restaurant was two 4-ounce portions, served with locally farmed vegetables and assorted dipping sauces, for around $30.

"We run a special with salmon every night," McLachlan says.

Salty's has plenty of company. Salmon, both wild and farmed, is the nation's third-most-popular seafood, with per-capita consumption at nearly 2.2 pounds. And it's a growing finfish favorite in U.S. restaurants and supermarkets, thanks in part to its healthful, omega-3-rich profile.

Sales of wild salmon get a further boost from industry-sponsored seafood promotions and species- and region-specific marketing programs that tout the five Pacific varieties: chinook (king), chum (keta), coho (silver), pink and sockeye.

Alaska accounts for more than 90 percent of the U.S. salmon catch. For 2006, the state's salmon harvest is projected to total 166.9 million fish. That's substantially less than the record 221 million last year but still ranks among Alaska's top 10 yields.

The ex-vessel value of this year's catch, meanwhile, is expected to reach $300 million. And while that's well below the 2005 mark of $334 million, it's far better than the 2002 low point of $162 million recorded by the Seafood Market Information Service in Juneau.

Through July 5, Alaska's salmon harvest topped 26 million fish, including 16.7 million sockeye, just over 5 million pinks and nearly 4 mil­lion chum, according to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.


Promotional tools

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, a state- and industry-backed corporation that two years ago tightened its focus with a streamlined, processor-centric board of directors, is now placing greater emphasis on consumer outreach. In the mix again for 2006 are advertisements in national consumer magazines such as Cooking Light, Sunset and Bon Appétit , as well as cooking demonstrations at events like the Boston Women's Show next month and the Chicago Women's Show in November.

The idea is to highlight Alaska seafood - including salmon - on stage, perhaps prompting attendees "to go to their local grocery store to pick it up in the seafood case," says Laura Fleming, ASMI's communications director.

Moreover, ASMI continues to develop promotional materials for foodservice and retail channels. It is working on customized, seasonal pro­mo­- tions with national restaurant chains like McCormick & Schmick's and Country Kitchen, plus regional players, such as Skippers in the Northwest, Phillips in the Mid-Atlantic, Gas­tronomy in Salt Lake City and Ivar's in Seattle.

And in the retail world, ASMI is strengthening its on-site training programs for seafood-department managers and employees.

Several Kroger supermarkets in the South­east, for example, recently received in-depth information about handling, preparing and merchandising Alaska fish and shellfish.

"We've always worked with [retailers], but we're developing that into a stronger, tailored program," Fleming says.

ASMI's retail toolbox also contains enhanced point-of-sale materials, such as a downloadable PowerPoint presentation that supports the Cook it Frozen campaign, which shows "how to cook seafood that's just come out of your freezer," Fleming says. "Retailers can use these materials to train their own people about how to put on a demo."

The latest addition to the ASMI promotional lineup is electronic files of 5-by-8-inch recipe cards that can be made available at the seafood case or during in-store culinary tutorials.

The cards, which sport a shopping list for entrées like Alaska salmon, plus side dishes and desserts, are modeled after those created by Publix Super Markets in Lakeland, Fla., for use by the Publix Apron's Cooking School.

"We aren't going to print these," Fleming explains. "They are digital art files available to Alaska seafood suppliers, who then can offer them or print them for their retail accounts."


Region-specific marketing

ASMI isn't going it alone. There are hosts of marketing programs in Alaska, some of which benefit from legislation that provides a mechanism to fund regional seafood-development associations. The groups trumpet, for instance, Arctic Keta chum or Kenai Wild sockeye from the Kenai Peninsula and Cook Inlet.

And then there's Copper River, which has come to symbolize the unofficial kickoff of Alaska's summer salmon harvest, setting off a frenzy of "We've-got-'em-first" proclamations and through-the-roof prices.

The first batch of Copper River salmon to reach Seattle this year commanded nearly $37 per pound at one national supermarket chain, while a local retailer had kings listed at $36.99 and sockeyes at $28.99. (One retail-wholesale outlet in Ohio offered kings at a stratospheric $38.95 a pound.)

As fish from other rivers became available, however, prices eased. In early July on the Internet, Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle was selling Copper River king fillets for $19.99 a pound and 2-pound steaks for $36 each. Copper River sockeye, meanwhile, were $39.99 for whole fish - each at least 6 pounds - down from $54 apiece in late June.

Yukon River salmon, prized for the 30-plus-percent oil content that helps fuel their 2,000-mile journey upriver across remote northern Alaska, are another big-ticket item.

Early last month, Adam Newton, executive chef at the Oceanaire restaurant in Atlanta, was looking forward to receiving his first shipment this season of Yukon kings, which he planned to price in the $35 to $40 range for an entrée.

"We'll see what they come in at, and what the yield is," Newton says.

Tony Webber, president of Pescamax in Seattle, says the king harvest is off to a good start. Pescamax is the North American sales-and-marketing partner for Kwik'pak Fisheries, a nonprofit producer of fresh, frozen and smoked Yukon salmon.

"And there's been a plethora of chums so far this year, too," Webber notes. "As a result, we've found some new inroads into mid- to high-end foodservice and retail."

In early July, prices for Yukon kings were in the $8.15 to $8.50 range per pound, f.o.b. Anchorage, up $1 to $1.15 per pound from 2005, Webber says.

"But," he adds, "the costs are higher than last year, so it's all relative."

Still, sourcing from the Yukon is not for everybody.

Peter Edison, VP of Ocean Crystal Seafood in Los Angeles, says Yukon kings are "a fantastic fish." His customers, who purchase high-quality troll- and gillnet-caught salmon from other areas of Alaska and Canada, nonetheless aren't really interested.

"The price is a premium to the market, and it probably warrants it, but our customers aren't looking for that," Edison says.

Wild salmon's high value - often three or four times the price of farmed salmon - is especially noteworthy in light of a recent exposé in the August issue of Consumer Reports describing a "salmon scam."

CR representatives, who bought 23 supposedly wild salmon fillets last November, December and March from grocery stores and fish markets in five states, found that only 10 were wild-caught. [See Newsline this issue, page 6] The rest of the fish were farm-raised (determined by testing them for synthetic coloring agents used in aquaculture).

The magazine, which did not reveal the store names or locations, paid an average of $6.31 a pound for salmon that was correctly labeled as farmed, compared with $12.80 for properly marked wild salmon. The most costly was the farmed salmon listed as wild, with an average price of $15.62 a pound.


West Coast blues

Alaska isn't the only domestic source of wild salmon; California, Oregon and Washington are also in the game. But, given the drastic fishing restrictions this season to protect dwindling stocks in the Klamath River - which flows from Oregon through northern California - the king harvest is at its lowest level ever.

Indeed, the Pacific Fishery Man­agement Council estimates the ex-vessel value of this year's fishery will drop by 67 percent. The PFMC says commercial salmon landings last year were worth $23 million in California and $13 million in Oregon.

"It's having a huge financial impact that 
ripples not only from the fishermen, but all the way through the communities: the receivers, the wholesalers, on through the retailers," says David Goldenberg, CEO of the California Salmon Council in Folsom. "It hurts everybody."

Last month, spurred by an intense lobbying effort, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez declared a fishery-resource disaster to help West Coast fishing communities impacted by the season's virtual shutdown.

The declaration, which opens the door for the Small Business Ad­ministration to provide low-interest loans, "will pave the way for relief to our fisherman, their families and their communities," Gutierrez said in a news release.

At Carvalho Fisheries in Mc­Kinleyville, Calif., king salmon represented about 20 percent of the company's revenue three years ago. This year, it will be less than 1 percent.

"When we saw the allocation and the zones, I told my [team] that we will be money ahead to not tool up at all for salmon," says owner Bill Carvalho.

He notes that it's the first time in eight years the company hasn't participated in the fishery.

Carvalho Fisheries will continue to offer canned salmon from its online store - six 7.5-ounce cans were priced at $41.25 in mid-July - but will soon switch to frozen Alaska kings rather than West Coast fish.

"We have a great partner in Alaska, and we'll just tell them what we need," Carvalho says. "But we probably won't do more than a truckload. The canned market is pretty finite for us."

West Coast restaurants also are looking north to Alaska. In early July, the seafood-focused Farallon restaurant in San Francisco was menuing grilled Alaska king salmon for $36, served with gold potato puree, hen of the woods mushrooms, smoked bacon and beurre rouge.

But Farallon's executive chef, Parke Ulrich, earlier told the San Francisco Chronicle that patrons would miss California kings.

"It's one of the great local products," he said. "Tourists see all the water and ask, 'Where is all the local fish?'"

Still, with at least some regional product available and Alaska's season moving into high gear, wild salmon remain a must-have up and down the coast.

"We're always [excited] about the different runs," says McLachlan of Salty's. "And we feature the best salmon we can get."


Find other SeaFood Business articles with wild salmon here.

Contributing Editor Rick Ramseyer lives in Cumberland, Maine


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