Alaska pink salmon is set to become a staple in South Korean military rations and school lunches, as an Anchorage businessman prepares to introduce the country to the fish.
Kenneth Zong, president of Alaska Marine Seafood Inc., has signed a five-year contract with the Lotte Group, South Korea's fourth-largest conglomerate. The contract calls for Lotte to buy increasing volumes of canned Alaska pink salmon over a five-year period, starting with at least 5.6 million cans this year.
"This year we just opened the door," Zong said, noting that Koreans are wholly unfamiliar with canned pink salmon.
He said the country's salmon consumption is limited to Norwegian and Chilean farmed salmon that is used for sashimi.
Lotte, which owns supermarkets, convenience stores, hotels, fast-food restaurants and an amusement park, also has its own retail brand. Zong said Cordova-based Copper River Seafoods will provide most of the canned salmon, which will then be resold in Korea under the Lotte brand name. The Korean military and schools will also use the salmon. Lotte also sells potted meat products, milk and candy under its label, Zong said.
Copper River Seafoods co-owner Scott Blake didn't return a phone call for comment. It's not clear whether the sales will move canned salmon surplus or provide more markets for fishermen.
Bob Thorstenson, president of the United Fishermen of Alaska, said UFA referred Zong to processors because most fishermen in the state don't really have the infrastructure or organization to sell directly.
"I think they would have preferred to have bought directly from fishermen, but we haven't a lot of fishermen who are very organized in processing their own products, especially when it comes to pink salmon," Thorstenson said.
Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage, said now is a particularly ripe time to introduce Koreans to pink salmon, as the country's poultry has been struck with avian flu.
"They needed protein," said Cowdery, who worked with Zong on the deal.
But Zong recognizes that he can't just spring a new protein source on the country and expect success. Advertising will be important, and so will old-fashioned taste tests.
In that vein, Zong is planning a trip to Seoul next month during which he will host salmon sampling for hundreds of people at one of the city's hotels owned by Lotte.
"I'm going to rent a banquet room and I'm going to take two chefs from Alaska who know how to cook salmon, because Korean people never had a taste of good salmon dishes," Zong said.
He plans to serve Alaska seafood - halibut and cod also - to government officials, school children and their parents and wholesale businessmen.