JUNEAU Some Southeast Natives are hoping to take advantage of China's growing market for Alaska seafood by distributing smoked salmon products to schoolchildren in Shanghai.
Tlingit and Haida Central Council is teaming up with Native smokeries in Kake and Yakutat to market Native-style smoked salmon in Chinese schools, said Don Bremner, a staff assistant at Central Council.
During a visit to the country, Central Council business manager Gordon Jackson was approached by a representative from a Chinese seafood company who proposed the marketing strategy, Bremner said.
The partners have chosen a school for sample testing the Shanghai-Pudong Vocational School No. 4.
''We'd like to get some test samples over there between now and the 2004 salmon season, so that if the product is a match with the market over there, we'll start in the 2004 season with Kake Foods and Raven's Table,'' Bremner said.
Raven's Table is the Native smokery in Yakutat.
''We're starting out with the villages that have existing smokeries and infrastructure. As the market grows, we'll bring in other Southeast villages to provide the product,'' Bremner said.
Bremner said the samples most likely will be smoked pink and chum salmon strips and nuggets.
The Chinese are interested in products with minimal packaging and a long shelf life. If the school test goes well, the distributors hope to expand to other provinces and to the retail and wholesale markets, and eventually to distribute coho as well.
Central Council has applied for $56,000 from the state's salmon marketing grant program, but Bremner said the project will go ahead with or without the money.
''It makes sense for our villages since that's what they do anyway; they're experts at producing this type of smoked product. If it doesn't happen this year, it's going to happen,'' he said.
Duff Mitchell, chief operating officer of Kake Foods, said his company received grant money several years ago to look into the Chinese market for dried salmon products.
''We found that the import tariffs were just too high at the time, but now the markets have changed. The tariffs are still there, but they're radically reduced,'' Mitchell said.
Alaska seafood has long been sent to China for reprocessing, but now the country appears to offer promise for salmon marketing, said Laura Fleming, spokesperson for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
''It's broadly considered one of the most promising markets on the planet, because of the number of people and the fact that they are gaining economic power. There's a growing middle class, and so this opens up opportunities for products from Alaska,'' Fleming said.
She said China has imported Pacific chum salmon from Japan for some time, making it easier for Alaska to break into the market.
Mitchell said Kake Foods already distributes overseas to Germany, Spain, France and Japan, though its smoked products are sold primarily on the domestic market.
He said the China project would be a boon to Native communities.
''(Central Council is) trying to brand and help support some value-added products produced by Native processors to help increase jobs and economic development in some of the villages,'' he said.
Masha Herbst is a reporter for the Juneau Empire.
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