Seafood forum puts emphasis on quality, innovation

Hooking new markets key to net gains

Posted: Thursday, December 07, 2000

"See fish, see food" was the thrust of a seafood forum Wednesday in Kenai.

"We are focusing on the fact that this is a food industry, not a fish industry," said Robin Zerbel, of the World Trade Center. "That's a little different way to look at it."

Zerbel brought the forum to the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center at the invitation of Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley.

Randy Rice, seafood technical program director for Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, underscored Zerbel's words in his "Fish are Food" presentation.

"We have to realize the importance of value is what (seafood) looks like on somebody's plate," said Rice, reminding his listeners that seafood "is in no better condition than when it comes from the water. It's up to us to maintain optimum quality."

Some 60 people attended and participated in the forum. Cutting a wide swath across a web of related industries were representatives from fisheries, food, banking, employment, government and transportation.

Providing a glimpse into global competition, Rice shared a video heralding the value of Chile-farmed salmon. Action shots and music blended with a creative script heavily marketing salmon that are "born in the hidden corner of the planet."

"To a lot of people around the world, salmon is salmon," Rice said. "They're looking for a reasonable product at a reasonable price."

Quality is the linchpin that can make or break a product, according to Rice, who provided examples of quality assurance and quality control programs used around the world.

"In Ireland, they use a total quality management approach," he said, referring to the Irish Sea Fisheries Board. "They think of quality before they even build a farm."

Bringing the focus back to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, Rice shared information on marketing of Alaska seafood in Australia, France, China, Japan, Southern Europe and at the Brussels Seafood Show. Although Japan is Alaska's No. 1 customer, Rice said, the competition has become extremely tight thanks to Chile's aggressive campaign.

"There are a lot of good reasons to be optimistic," Rice said. "Cook Inlet has great things going for it. There are a lot of pluses."

Reasons for his optimism include a growing trend among consumers toward eating healthy foods, the sustainable nature of Alaska seafood and his belief that there is a solid place for it in the marketplace.

"This is a whole new ball game," he said. "What we used to do even 10 years ago isn't good enough anymore."

Helping meet the challenge is ASMI.

"We're a resource," Rice said. "You should use us."

Pat Shanahan, an international food consultant, discussed niche marketing, and Cheryl Cummings, a program director with the Alaska Fisheries Development Founda-tion, followed up with the story of Arctic Keta Salmon, a chum salmon product from Western Alaska.

Shanahan also detailed a project with Wards Cove Packing.

"They had a long history, but no cohesive marketing image," she said of the effort to define the company's niche. The finished product included photos of the company's colorful geographic setting, its founders and colorful displays of salmon as part of a meal.

"They had no image that said, 'We sell food,'" Shanahan said. Comparing Wards Cove's revised image with the flashy video from Chile, she said, "In Chile, they don't have a history with salmon, but people love to be connected with the producers of their food."

Ken Sirois, from the Kenai Job Center, attended the forum to see how he can support local processors. His concern wasn't over dwindling salmon returns, but stable economies in other areas of the United States.

"I'm the one that finds (processors) employees every summer," he said. "Remember the 20,000 young people that used to come up here? They don't come anymore. That's a big concern for these people."

Melody Little, trade service officer with the international financial outfit The Trade Bank, said it looked like there was a lot that could be done to strengthen Alaska's seafood industry.

"I think this is all really good," she said. With Trade Bank's international scope, it has the potential to open doors in 81 different countries and 5,000 offices.

Mark Powell, owner of Alaska Salmon Distributors, asked how Alaska's Board of Fisheries fit into the topics being discussed.

"The Board of Fish needs to be involved in the process," Powell said. "How do you develop a foundation (for the seafood industry) and get them involved in the group?"

Zerbel, with the World Trade Center, said one goal of Wednes-day's forum was to open dialog between all players in the seafood industry.

"The job of the World Trade Center is to make business happen," Zerbel said. "There are markets everywhere. The problem is to develop in Alaska the strength of your business so we can have sustainable businesses.

"We're here because we believe the Kenai Peninsula Borough has the potential to make the biggest leap," she said.

Interested by what he was hearing, Mayor Bagley said he would be exploring marketing opportunities available to the peninsula's seafood industry.

"If this is something people think will work, I'm going to pursue it," he said.

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