China’s fish

sea queen

ALDI brand salmon – made in China, caught in Alaska

News analysis

The national seafood media was Monday atwitter with speculation China might impose tariffs on American seafood, and Alaska Commissioner of Commerce Mike Navarre was trying to spin the state’s proposed liquified natural gas (LNG) project as some sort of shelter against a looming U.S.-China trade war. 

“The governor’s established a relationship with the Chinese and the ministers in China that maybe will help in what they look to put tariffs on,” Navarre told Anchorage’s KTVA. “If they have an ongoing interest, which they’re showing at this time, in Alaska’s natural gas, it may help us in how they determine what products they’re going to put tariffs on.”

“For now, China appears to be leaving Alaska seafood alone,” added reporter Liz Raines.

There was no “appears” about it. Alaska seafood was not on the list of products with new tariffs announced by the Chinese, and unless the Chinese are really bad businessmen – something of which they have never been accused – Alaska seafood will remain off the list.


Because China – sometimes with the help of North Korean serfs – has turned Alaska fish into a moneymaker for China. The Chinese would be shooting themselves in the pocketbook by imposing a tariff on Alaska seafood.

China imported about $1.3 billion worth of seafood from the U.S. last year, but it turned around and exported back to the U.S. about $2.8 billion worth of seafood, according to data from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

That’s a net gain of $1.5 billion in favor of the Chinese.

Alaska is responsible for about $880 million of the $1.3 billion in seafood exports to China, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), which now pegs China as the state’s biggest market. About 35 percent of Alaska seafood ends up in China where much of it is processed before being shipped back to the U.S. for retails sales.

Markets lost

Japan continues to be a big importer of Alaska salmon, but a huge part of that historical market has been stolen by farmed salmon free from the worms common in wild fish. 

Alaska supplied almost 90 percent of Japan’s imported salmon as late as 1989. It’s share was down to less than 20 percent by 2005, according to an analysis by Kieth Criddle at the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Science.

Blame the Norwegians who pushed fresh salmon into the Japanese market. They invested a decade in convincing the discerning Japanese that it was safe to eat uncooked salmon and began producing a fat-rich salmon the Japanese wouldn’t reject as too lean for sushi. 

As a result, for the sixth year straight, salmon last year ranked as the favorite fish at Japanese conveyor-belt sushi restaurantsaccording to a survey by seafood processor Maruha Nichiro.

Shifting markets and falling prices linked to a global market takeover by the fish farmers forced Alaska fishing interests to find new ways to compete elsewhere.

New world order

Seeking to drive down costs, they soon focused on China as a go-to processing center for Alaska salmon.

“Most of Alaska’s exports to China consists of frozen H&G (headed/gutted) fish, which are then filleted in China where labor costs are considerably lower,” according to ASMI. There is little doubt this shift to Chinese processing maximized the value for some of the approximately 15,000 people who hold state limited entry permits allowing them to fish commercially.

About a quarter of those permit holders are non-residents, according to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, and the non-residents are concentrated in the most valuable fisheries – the purse seine fisheries in Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska, and the sockeye salmon gillnet fishery in Bristol Bay.

Gross earnings per permit in the Bay have averaged $90,000 since 2010, according to the Spring 2017 Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association. The fishing season lasts less than two months. 

Since Alaska enacted the limited entry law in 1972 to restrict the number  of commercial fishermen, more than 50 percent of the permits issued to commercial fishermen in Bristol Bay have been sold to fishermen outside of the region, many of them to Lower 48 residents, according to a study by University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers.

Of the $72.7 million (after expenses) earned by limited entry permit holders in Bristol Bay in 2010, only 31 percent stayed in Alaska, according to a report prepared for the Regional Seafood Development Association by the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER). Almost as much, 26 percent, went south with Washington state fishermen. Residents of Oregon and California near equally split another 8 percent. And 8 percent was spread among residents of other Lower 48 states.

A shift to H&G and shipment to China to have the fish filleted and picked free of pin bones by cheap labor has been good for the fishermen. But the change hasn’t necessarily benefited Alaska, especially rural Alaska.

Minimizing fish handling in-state reduced seasonal job opportunities in Bristol Bay communities with an economic effect that rippled through the region.

The result has been a Bristol Bay resident population in decline for years. It is now down to about two-thirds of what it was in 1990. blurb1

Slave labor

It could be worse. The Associated Press last fall reported that some of the Alaska salmon exported to China was being processed by laborers shipped in from North Korea.

“This means Americans buying salmon for dinner at Walmart or ALDI may inadvertently have subsidized the North Korean government as it builds its nuclear weapons program,” the AP investigation concluded. “Their purchases may also have supported what the United States calls ‘modern day slavery’ — even if the jobs are highly coveted by North Koreans.”

The AP reported North Koreans were paid about $300 a month with anywhere from 50 to 70 percent taken by the Korean government. “It passes on to the workers as little as $90 per month — or roughly 46 cents per hour,” the report said.

It described the work in China as “exhausting, with shifts lasting up to 12 hours and most workers getting just one day off each week. At some factories, laborers work hunched over tables as North Korean political slogans are blasted from waist-high loudspeakers.”

There is no indication of how much Alaska seafood went through the Hunchun, China, plants staffed by slave labor, but one of the products specifically singled out by the AP was “Sea Queen Wild Caught Pink Salmon Fillets.” Those salmon, according to the Marine Stewardship Council, come from various Alaska salmon fisheries, along with fisheries in Russia and British Columbia, Canada.

Bottom feeders

But not all of the fish exported from Alaska to China to be processed and resold back in America is salmon. Some of the seafood exported to China is bottomfish less than desirable in most American markets, but it ends up back in the U.S. anyway.

About 37,000 metric tons of arrowtooth flounder are harvested off Alaska on average, according to an ASMI Analyses of Specialty Alaska Seafood Products. Nearly all of it is exported to China.

A lot of it is then filleted and had been shipped back to be sold at Walmart where it got horrible reviews as an almost inedible product. Walmart has since dropped its old Alaska flounder brand and replaced it with a new brand for which there are no reviews, but the low, $6.18 per pound price for skinless, FZ Flounder Fillets “harvested from the icy cold waters of Alaska” would indicate the new fish might be the same old arrowtooth.

Arrowtooth filets are a crap shoot. Some will cook up fine; most will go to mush.

“Although arrowtooh flounder closely resemble smaller halibut, there is a critical difference in meat quality that results in the former being one of Alaska’s most valuable species and arrowtooth being one of the lowest,” the ASMI report says. “Halibut meat has a dense, white texture….Arrowtooth flounder carry a myxosporean parasite that release a proteolytic enzyme which softens the fish’s flesh upon landing.

“Not all arrowtooth carry the meat-softening parasite, but most do. The only way to
counteract the enzyme is to treat the fish with an additive that partially offsets the enzymatic process, or to keep the fish just above freezing and then cooking quickly under high heat (such as frying). Unfortunately, both practices do not completely fix the enzyme problem, and makes harvest and processing much more costly.”

Arrowtooth flounder doesn’t help to improve the reputation of Alaska seafood. It would probably be good for the reputation of Alaska fish in U.S. markets if the arrowtooth stayed in China, but it doesn’t.

“Arrowtooth flounder is generally exported to China as frozen whole fish….It is then re-exported as frozen fillets or breaded/frozen product to Europe, the U.S., and other markets as a low-cost flounder or whitefish product. Finished arrowtooth fillet product is commonly marketed simply as ‘flounder,’ ASMI reported. “This has caused consumer confusion and disappointment in some cases as fillets containing the flesh-softening enzyme are typically much lower quality than other flounder species.”

That’s something of an understatement.

“We like flounder,” Walmarticus posted in a review of the old Walmart arrowtooth in March of last year. “Local store was out of flounder, so I saw these and figured – why not? Let me tell you why not. RICE has more texture. Mushy, overcooked rice. This stuff after cooking had the same consistency of congealed vomit. It looked good, smelled ok, but had all the taste of mushy, salt free rice cooked in a very light fish broth.”

If China can make money off products like this imported from Alaska and resold, why in the world would it want to restrict those imports?






17 replies »

  1. Arrowtooth are edible if you marinate them in soy sauce for 5-6 hours. They work as salt fish also. Either way you need an extreme tolerance for salty food. When I was fishing halibut in the Sound, I had a decent market for arrowtooth flounder. They can be targeted with minimum halibut bycatch, at least in PWS where most of the halibut are fairly deep. Flounder could be found in 20 fathoms or so. Not many legal halibut in the Sound until you get down to 40-50f. All of that said, I can’t imagine many buying arrowtooth flounder more than once, no matter the price. One can buy some pretty decent food for a lot less than ( cheap?) fish at 6 bucks a pound!

  2. China’s Fish…
    China’s Timber…
    China’s Pipeline…
    China gets the gas…
    And then we buy all our gear and clothes from China’s Sweatshops where workers make as little as 1 dollar a day.
    Do any American Patriots see a problem with this paradigm?
    Thank Bill Walker when you see him for steering the state in the wrong direction.

  3. I wonder if arrowtooth could be used for fishmeal – fish and animal feed. One of the few species I never tried to eat when I was doing trawl surveys in the Aleutians and Alaska Peninsula.

  4. Ugggg. One more reason to catch and grow your own food.

    Growing up, some, me included, had the misconception that our government had our back with the safety of what was being put on our grocery shelves.
    Pretty sure they never did, we were just straight up good little naive guinea pigs (Something the government hopes for) A person thought, If it’s on the shelf it must be safe, surely they wouldn’t allow something in that would hurt us.
    Now a days it’s blatantly obvious they’re trying to purposely kill us off with their trade wheeling and dealings. All for the charge towards the New World Order.

  5. huge biomass and potentially part of the problem of halibut decline. the two flatfish fill a similar ecological niche. it would be interesting to see what happened to halibut biomass if the arrowtooth biomass was significantly reduced, but there appears to be no way to catch arrowtooth without also catching a lot of halibut.

    • While its not scientific, I also remember reading of one boater (may have been a charter guy) who considered arrowtooth flounder the best bait for large halibut (over 100 lbs).
      It was interesting to me at the time because the only arrowtooth flounder I’ve ever caught in any numbers was with a gillnet at night (unintentional, of course). Think I’ve only caught one arrowtooth with rod and reel but have caught quite a few halibut.
      Thus I would be pretty hard pressed to catch one for halibut bait and then there is the issue of not really targeting halibut over 100 lbs. In case others here are interested, June, 2017 issue of Fish Alaska magazine has a description of how to release those large halibut without leaving your circle hook.

    • Pretty much zero difference between this and what we used to do back in the 70’s,80’s and 90’s…….mainly, export whole logs to Japan rather than finished lumber. Send the natural resource out of Alaska and let someone else make the money processing it into a usable product. We do it with Crude Oil and Minerals as well. Essentially Alaska is no different that Nigeria or any other 3rd world country……

      • yes, sadly. Alaska is a colony. the colonial masters see to it that raw products are shipped to wherever they can be most efficiently processed. H&G salmon, though no on has said this, are apparently the “cants” of Alaska fisheries if you are familiar with the old timber industry of Southeast Alaska. and given a growing Chinese interest in fish heads, maybe the state needs a law requiring H&G before export so Alaska processing doesn’t decline to only “G.”

      • Actually Keith, Alaska’s logs from National Forests were required to be canted before export Native owned logs were exported whole.
        And you know why all that money was made by someone else, too right??
        Because someone had to subsidize that money lost on timber to create jobs that could be done cheaper by foreign labor. Also, remember all the bitching when SE pulp mills were closed.
        I think the new term is “shithole” country.

      • Bill: the idea the Japanese lost money on Tongass timber is a myth. there were all kinds of accounting games being played in Japan as USFS accounts finally discovered when they got into a full audit of the books. i reported on some of this at the Juneau Empire in the late 1970s, early 1980s.
        the pulp mills existed to take care of the “decadent” old growth that wasn’t much use as timber. the good stuff went for for construction and, of course, the Japanese (being good business people like the Chinese) were high-grading the Sitka spruce. the best of that is highly valuable. from the USFS: “The high strength-to-weight ratio and
        resonant qualities of clear lumber are
        attributes that have traditionally made
        Sitka spruce wood valuable for specialty
        uses. Today, these uses include
        sounding boards for high-quality
        pianos, guitar faces, ladders, and components
        of experimental light aircraft.
        Other products are oars, planking,
        masts, and spars for boats and turbine
        blades for wind-energy conversion

      • Who said that Japanese lost money on Tongass timber?? And Native owned logs didn’t require anything of the sort on their timber and IMO it was because they were not in the business of creating jobs in sawmills. They did create a bunch of temporary jobs in the woods harvesting those logs.
        The US govt subsidized those Tongass logs by requiring they be canted (providing jobs for Alaskans). Similar situation for Tongass old growth logs with the argument that they weren’t worth anything more than pulp. These things occur all the time to create jobs and Don Young could talk all day long on its merits.
        Timber industry is trying its darndest to get access to what’s left of Tongass old-growth trees and you can bet its not for pulp (of firewood).

      • Craig’s statement:
        (Being good business people like the Chinese)

        Well, when your country is a Communist Dictatorship, it is much easier to make a profit off of your labor…no unions, no civil rights, no 8 hour shifts, no minimum wage…
        By human watch groups, it is estimated that 2.9 million Chinese People may be living in Slave like conditions…that is how they (Chinese Government) are “good business people”.

  6. My recollection is that arrowthooth flounder comes up about every ten years, or so, as someone comes up with a process that (supposedly) controls that enzyme that turns the meat into mush. So far none has worked out and it will probably continue as I also recall that they (arrowtooth flounder) are (or were) the largest biomass in Gulf of Alaska.
    This is the first I’ve heard about some of them not having that enzyme.

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