When six trade representatives from China visited Juneau during a tour of Southeast Alaska fisheries on Friday, they found promising but uncertain opportunities for Alaska seafood.
Zhou Dan Yi, a Shanghai food company manager, was intrigued by the discarded parts at Juneau and Cordova processing plants. Parts such as fish heads are enjoyed immensely on dinner tables in China.
"Why are they throwing them away?'' she asked.
Unfortunately, while shipping frozen salmon heads to China might sound like a promising opportunity, the bargaining prices so far haven't been good enough for actual trade to occur.
"Having a competitive price is the essential thing,'' said KC Dochtermann, international program director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute's Bellevue, Wash., branch office.
China - previously a closed market - has started importing Alaska seafood over the last few years. While the Chinese do not eat as much seafood as Japanese consumers, their appetites far exceed Americans'. Per capita consumption of seafood in China is about 80 pounds per year. Per capita consumption in the United States is "more like 15 pounds,'' said Laura Fleming of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, which is hosting the Chinese delegation.
Alaska seafood exports to China are in some cases increasing, Fleming said.
In 2002, the last year for which U.S. seafood export data were available, 92 metric tons of king crab were shipped from Alaska to Shanghai and Hong Kong, a 77 percent increase in volume from the previous year.
Also in 2002, 254 metric tons of canned pink salmon was shipped from Alaska to the two cities, a 2,015 percent increase from the previous year.
All of the China businessmen and women were excited about the possibility of importing razor clams from Alaska's Cook Inlet.
"Alaska (clams) have a much bigger size than in China,'' explained Robin Wang, a Shanghai-based representative for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. "All these people are interested in clams,'' he said.
Other hot species for the Chinese representatives were geoducks, oysters, crab and salmon. They asked detailed questions about the length of seasons, the size of the fisheries and the reason for perplexing matters like the higher cost of smoked fish.
Yi said before the delegation's trip to Alaska, "We thought Alaska species were limited. But we found there are so many different fish."
A particularly interesting lesson for Yi involved one of Alaska's great prides - its salmon. Yi explained that big city dwellers in China eat a lot of salmon that comes from Norway, and many Chinese consumers have never even heard of Alaska salmon. That's because it's much cheaper to import Norwegian salmon than Alaskan varieties, she said.
Until now, Yi never understood why Alaska salmon was more expensive. "We learned here that it's because it is wild, not farmed like it is in Norway.''
The delegation also got a strong trade pitch from Gov. Frank Murkowski at the State Capitol on Friday. He asked them to consider purchasing "institutional packs" of seafood from Alaska. The packs are generally in the form of four-pound bags that are sold to hospitals, schools and other large institutions.
"I'd be very interested,'' said Chu Shuk Yee, a manager for Family Care Limited in Hong Kong. "It's a very nutritional product."
"Well, let's put something together," Murkowski responded.