Burgeoning worldwide popularity for sockeye salmon might translate into less reliance on Japan, a longtime trading partner for Alaska processors, who are now looking more to European and domestic markets.
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"The fish went other directions because the Japanese market wouldn't pay the prices that were needed," said Eric Norman, vice president and general manager for Taku Fisheries/Smokeries, a Juneau producer.
Exports of the frozen red-fleshed fish to Japan dropped roughly 36 percent in 2006 from last year, according to the October edition of the Seafood Market Bulletin published by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
Alaska Seafood Marketing Institutespokeswoman Laura Fleming cautioned that talk of a market shift might be premature, but she noted that the institute's economists are beginning to wonder whether the drop is reflective of a growing European and domestic trend in natural and wild fish.
In Juneau - which produces a fraction of Alaska's sockeye - processors have already looked away from Japan.
"It has been two years since we have shipped any frozen sockeye (to Japan)," said Jim Erickson, a co-owner of the family-run business Alaska Glacier Seafoods.
Domestically, "we are able to sell it fresh, which typically demands a higher price. That is kind of what drives it all," he said.
"The frozen market in general has really perked up; the demand for wild natural Alaska salmon is the key buzzword there. It is really increased, it has really jumped these markets up substantially," Norman said.
This all may be just the latest step in the great salmon trade dance between Japan and Alaska.
During the '80s and early '90s, sales of Alaska salmon were hit hard by the growing farmed salmon market. Customers turned to cheaper fish such as farmed coho from Chile. The farmed fish were desirable because their size, color and prices were more reliable than those of wild fish, Fleming said.
Alaska struggled to get back into the Japanese market. In the meantime, it began redirecting its marketing efforts to other areas, such as the Lower 48 and Europe, which in recent years has become more interested in sustainable, natural products.
"We've had to develop new markets, but still, Japan is an incredibly important market for us," Fleming said.
Through August, frozen sockeye exports to Japan totaled 27 million pounds, just 33 percent of frozen production for the year, according to the ASMI bulletin. It was a sharp dropoff from the previous two years. Production rates were similar, but Japan secured 66 percent to 69 percent of the production during the earlier years.
The Japanese blame the shift - and the island country's high fish prices - on a "worldwide fad for fish."
An Oct. 20 headline in the major Tokyo paper Asahi read, "Prices Soaring, Any Way You Slice It."
The article said the rising popularity of fish in Europe and the United States was a big problem for Japan. Japan's producers were outpriced by both European and American markets in 2006.
Rise in demand means a rise in prices and "if the fish gets too expensive, Maruha's (a major Japanese seafood producer) customers - mostly supermarkets and sushi restaurants - will withdraw the pricier fish from their offerings," the paper said.
Fleming acknowledged a trend toward higher prices for Alaska salmon but added, "It is quite common to find things in the Japanese business press that say Japan is being asked too pay too much for salmon. This has been a dance between buyer and seller that has gone on for many, many years."
European and domestic markets are currently willing to pay more for the wild-caught fish.
The value of the 2006 salmon catch was reported to be $308.8 million - higher than the most recent 10-year average of $279 million, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game's preliminary price reports, released Thursday.
Fleming of ASMI said that although the cause of the decline in exports to Japan was uncertain, it was clear that global demand for premium salmon products, such as fresh and boneless fillets and marinades, was strengthening. And customers appear willing to pay the higher prices.
"We've seen an increase in demand like we've never experienced before," Erickson of Alaska Glacier Seafoods said of one of its hot-selling items - fresh sockeye fillets.
Year-end data will show whether Japan is buying more of these premium products as well, Fleming said. In the meantime, ASMI has been working hard to "reposition" sockeye in the eyes of the Japanese consumer.
"We are helping establish a greater reputation among homemakers and people who cook food," she said. A recipe contest has been launched as has a TV ad featuring children and salmon.
"We can't compete on the basis of price, we can only compete on the basis of being a wild product," Fleming said.
Brittany Retherford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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