KETCHIKAN - Alaska's salmon industry will suffer if Japanese roe technicians can't obtain visas to work in the United States this year.
A federal program for guest worker visas reached its 66,000-cap earlier than expected, and before the 120-day window of opportunity for the Japanese roe technicians to apply.
Everybody in the salmon industry in Alaska will be affected by this, said Gordon Lindquist, vice president and general manager of Alaska General Seafoods. That includes companies like AGS that operate salmon processing plants in Ketchikan and the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, which relies on sales of some of the salmon returning to its hatchery site to pay its costs.
"We need the people, there's no question about it," said SSRAA general manager John Burke.
In Juneau, Taku Fisheries general manager Eric Norman said the company generally employees a Japanese roe technician each summer. He said he is unsure whether the difficulty would affect the company.
Every year, hundreds of Japanese roe technicians come to Alaska to oversee the sorting and grading of salmon roe for the Japanese market. Lindquist said the practice has occurred for at least three decades, and the technicians' work is key for the Japanese market's acceptance of the product.
"It's a flavor, taste and texture that is uniquely known in Japan and only used in Japan," Lindquist said. "Therefore, the knowledge base for those products is from Japan."
The two main types of roe products are called sujiko and ikura. There can be seven grades of salmon roe per species, according to Sen. Lisa Murkowski's office. The senator and 14 other members of Congress are asking President Bush to help resolve the visa issue.
Without the quality assurance provided by the Japanese technicians, the market value of the Alaska roe product would plummet, officials say.
"I imagine we could still make the product, but it wouldn't have the same value, because there's no Japanese oversight and they would not trust it in their marketplace," Burke said.
The Japanese technicians usually obtain the visas through the federal H-2B temporary guest worker program. In March, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services closed applications for H-2B visas because strong demand early in the fiscal year had pushed the number of applicants up to the annual cap of 66,000 workers.
"Everyone that's in the salmon industry is very concerned," Lindquist said. "We have a very limited amount of time to get the people through the process and get the people over here."