Korean importer looks for delicacy in Southeast waters

Posted: Tuesday, June 14, 2005

A bottom-feeder fish usually discarded by Southeast Alaska fisherman is a delicacy in Korea that fetches a high price and is served at banquet dinners.

A Korean seafood importer visited Southeast Alaska last week, looking into the market for skate, a flat fish that is eaten raw in his country.

But processors told him it wouldn't happen anytime soon, if ever.

"I'm just checking at this point," said Lee Geon-joo, president of New Port Co., based in Seoul. He visited processors in Juneau, Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg.

Lee is trying to grow his business because he imports only a fraction of the 10,000 metric tons of skate his government allows to be shipped to Korea.

For some 10 years Lee has bought skate caught by trawlers from Oregon, Washington and Southcentral Alaska, where there are looser regulations on trawling.

Trawling is the method of dragging 350- to 600-foot nets along the ocean floor to collect seafood. Environmentalists argue that it destroys ecosystems and habitats that nurture other sea populations. The method is illegal in Southeast Alaska.

Skate is often caught by local fishermen as a bycatch but not kept for commercial use. Anglers typically go for high-value fish such as halibut when lowering their lines. Sometimes they catch skate, but the fish is tossed back because there is no local market to sell it.

But even if there were buyers, Eric Norman, general manager of Taku Smokeries/Fisheries, said regional fishermen do not pull up enough volume of skate to develop it into a business.

"I guess anything is possible," Norman said, but he doubts if companies would ever target skate.

Salmon, halibut, crab and other fish keep Southeast Alaska seafood companies busy. Unlike other areas of the country, fishermen in Southeast Alaska rarely have slow days on which to catch skate, said Mike Erickson, president of Alaska Glacier Seafoods.

"But if someone is interested in skate, I would be willing to talk with them," Erickson said, particularly if the price is up.

Because no commercial fisheries have ever caught skate in Southeast Alaska for the market, Erickson does not know catch rates or the availability of the product.

"It could be 10,000, 20,000 or 1,000. We just don't know," Erickson said.

Tory O'Connell, state groundfish project manager for commercial fishing in Southeast Alaska, said she would support skate fishing, if there was enough interest.

A lot of skate that are pulled in are not being reported and many are killed during the discard process, according to O'Connell.

"If there was a price for skate, fisheries may take them in," she said.

Skate is a vulnerable species subject to over-harvesting, due it low yearly egg production, O'Connell said.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com

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