Value-added salmon products have been the rallying point for commercial fishers in Alaska ever since farmed salmon started taking over the fresh market worldwide. Many ideas have been floated, though few have been successful, or even seen through to fruition.
The latest plan comes from Gail Marshall, a fisheries biologist and food scientist in Anchorage, who is looking for support to begin experimenting on Alaska salmon.
Her plan is open-ended, with new products and new markets based on rounds of research in the lab and with consumers. To that end, Marshall, through her company, Phoenix Food Consulting, along with Robin Richardson, executive director of the World Trade Center of Alaska, has submitted a project proposal to the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region seeking funding.
"What I'd like to do here, and what I did in Louisiana, is form an extension-type project and work with processors and fishermen to apply new techniques and new products," Marshall said. "I'm just trying to get people to understand what I'm doing and why it's different. And why it's urgent to get some funding for it."
Marshall said technology that hasn't been applied to salmon marketing could provide some avenues to new products for Alaska's fish.
"There's a lot of really good technology out there that can be used that hasn't been applied," she said. "A lot of the time in industries like poultry and fish, until you can show that it works and have a better product, they don't get on the bandwagon."
Cautiously eyeing the bandwagon is the United Fishermen of Alaska, a commercial fishing trade group based in Juneau. UFA executive director Tom Gemmell said he will invite Marshall to the organization's annual meeting the week of Oct. 22 in Petersburg to hear her plans.
"The whole idea of getting more value-added product out there is very important," Gemmell said. "People want to buy products at stores and just stick them in the oven at home.
"I can't speak specifically about her proposals -- I'm not a food science expert -- but it could be part of the equation," he added. "We need to get people to use more fish."
He cautioned that traditional products such as frozen fillets and cans will remain important and will not go away.
Some of the product ideas Marshall tossed around include adding spices and sauces to currently canned salmon and chilled products.
"What can we do with cans of pink salmon? We can do like they do with sardines and add chili sauce or mustard sauce," she said. "And why not pasteurize salmon rather than market them shelf-stable? A chilled product, seasoned and ready to use in a salad, casserole, a taco or a wrap?"
All of which sounds good to Kasilof setnetter Paul Shadura.
"It sounds exciting, it really does," Shadura said. "It's something you or I might probably buy off the shelf, when we wouldn't with cans."
He said such products could raise the demand and consequently the price for salmon, even in the face of declining runs.
"The whole idea is you can do more with less fish if you market it properly," Shadura said. "With value-added, what you get out will more than compensate for less fish caught.
"I think this is the path we need to go."
All of which is part of Marshall's stated goals to increase income and profits of fishers and processors and expand year-round jobs.
Shadura said he wondered if current seafood processing plants could handle added processes in the production lines. Some canneries in Alaska are using canning line equipment that's 100 years old, he said.
Marshall said it would not take much to add an element in a plant to add spices or sauces to salmon portions, either fillets or cans.
"There are a lot of things we can do to diversify our product," Marshall said. "It's important to get on to menus and off of chalkboards, to have fresh or previously frozen product year-round."
Shadura said he likes the idea of working on a more local scale to accomplish such goals, saying large seafood companies have vested interests in the farmed salmon industry, and often block smaller value-added projects.
"The large companies that control ASMI are not allowing us to move forward with programs," he said of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. "But this is an option. We have to consider banding together, a marketing association."
Marshall is hoping a round of funding from NMFS due in September will recognize her proposal. She is also looking for state funding and in-kind contributions of salmon from fishers and production space from processors.
But it's all dependent on economics.
"We don't want to convert everything overnight, but channel it through. Maybe put 10 percent of a production line to a new type of product, then after that, maybe 40 percent. We have to grow the product," she said. "What's really important is an economic analysis. Does this make sense to do this versus canning salmon?"
She said the time is right to take the offensive against farmed salmon and promote Alaska salmon as an alternative to beef, as well.
"With foot-and-mouth disease and ... mad cows, with all that stuff, we couldn't have a better time to push natural, wild Alaska seafood."
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