Americans prefer Alaska brand; state's seafood a niche market

Posted: Monday, April 26, 2010

Four of five Americans are more likely to buy seafood with the Alaska label and three of five name the state's salmon as their top choice at the market.

Nearly half, 49 percent, of those surveyed by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute report they are eating more fresh seafood at home than in the past two years and 85 percent are eating as much or more frozen seafood at home.

ASMI unveiled its latest consumer research, a three-month effort concluded in December, during ComFish 2010 in Kodiak April 15.

The surveys, answered by 800 people in the New England, mid-Atlantic, north central and Pacific regions of the U.S., revealed a nearly universally positive impression of Alaska seafood.

However, as Quentin Fong of the Fisheries Industrial Technologies Center pointed out as a co-presenter with ASMI's Laura Fleming, Alaska seafood represents just 2 percent of the global market and the industry should focus on growth within that niche through efforts such as developing new value-added products.

The most common value-added product is surimi, the ground muscle of whitefish used for a range of seafood products, but other examples would be salmon burgers or loin cuts. More value-added products increase the ex-vessel price to fishermen and boost processor profit margins.

"It's still infinitesimal," said Fleming of the number of value-added products as a share of the Alaska seafood industry. "But a lot more are being made. We are making big strides."

American consumers eat at home far less than they did 40 years ago, although that number is increasing during the last two years because of the recession. Fong said consumers also spend only around 15 minutes preparing food at home, a fact certainly in sync with ASMI's latest Cook it Frozen campaign.

The seafood industry in general has plenty of room to grow, especially with new studies confirming its health benefits for being high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Americans eat 110 pounds of beef per year, 74 pounds of poultry and just 16 pounds of seafood.

Price pressure will always be an issue for Alaska seafood, especially as it competes against farmed cod, salmon and tilapia while seeking more shelf space at the retail level. While consumers say they prefer wild seafood to farmed by a 3-2 margin, behavior at the store doesn't match that response.

Fong noted retail food profit margins are slim, at less than 2 percent on average, and Americans have become accustomed to spending less on food thanks to the explosion of Walmart stores in the past 15 years.

Supercenter and warehouse stores have grown from 4 percent market share in 1994 to more than 17 percent of the market in 2006. As a percent of their disposable income, Americans spend 10 percent on food today compared to 21 percent in 1950.

Catch-share programs were by far the biggest complaint for fishermen at ComFish, particularly the Bering Sea Aleutian Islands crab catch share program begun in 2005.

Since then, the crab fleet has shrunk from 280 boats to 74, costing hundreds of crew their jobs and pinching fishing communities like Kodiak that relied in large part on crew income to support their local economies.

Shawn Dochtermann of the Crewmen's Association has penned a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, whose department supervises the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that administers catch share programs.

Dochtermann asked Locke for a moratorium on all catch share programs, alleging in the April 11 letter and in forums in Kodiak that vessel owners who control quota are coercing crew with threats of job loss to not to speak out about the effects of the catch share program.

Opponents of the programs estimate crew pay has declined from 10 percent of the vessel gross to around 1.5 percent.

Mark Fina, economist for NOAA who gave a preview of the program's five-year review to be released in December, said consolidation of the fleet was expected but happened more quickly than anticipated.

"There are things I would have done differently," said Fina, who added that NOAA was satisfied the program was meeting its safety and efficiency goals but expressed concern about the ability for new entrants to get quota shares, expanding competition and encouraging more active involvement onboard by quota owners.

Fina noted the crab season lasts much longer, 93 days in 2007-08 compared to three days in 2004, and that the jobs still remaining are better jobs than before.

Dochtermann disagreed with the latter assessment.

"I haven't talked to one crewmember who is happy with how he's being paid," Dochtermann said.

Environmental groups at ComFish celebrated President Barack Obama's recent decision to keep Bristol Bay off limits to oil and gas drilling, reversing the decision of President George W. Bush in 2008 to open the area to leasing.

They remained vigilant, though, noting the prohibition is not permanent and is only part of the Interior Department's five-year plan from 2012 to 2017.

Opposition to the Pebble mine project remained front and center, as critics expressed views on Alaska's mine permitting process they feel are inadequate to protect the Bristol Bay fishery.

Alaska Department of Natural Resources permitting coordinator Tom Crafford addressed the Pebble Partnership's recent $45,000 fine for drawing water from unpermitted sources from 2007 to 2009 while drilling exploratory wells in the proposed mine area.

The partnership's temporary water use permits have been suspended, but Crafford expects them to be restored within the month after the review of a plan the company submitted to prevent future violations.

Crafford acknowledged shortcomings in the previous inspection process that focused on site preservation and not where the drilling water was sourced.

"We were not auditing where the water was being taken from," Crafford said. "We are now."

Crafford also attempted to clarify the amount of revenue Alaska would receive from the Pebble mine. He said Alaska would receive a 7 percent mining license tax of the profits, a 3 percent state land royalty of the profits and a 9 percent corporate income tax.

While the Pebble opponents would like the DNR to simply say "no" to the project, Ron Benkert of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game large project review division of habitat, said that's just not possible.

"The proponents have a right to access the process," he said. "Our job is to manage the process. We can't simply say, 'this is too big.'"

Andrew Jensen can be reached at andrew.jensen.@alaskajournal.com.



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