Today in the global fishing business: The two biggest, young stars in Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race hookup with a Norwegian sponsor which built its business on producing food for fish farms, and an “eco-friendly” farmed salmon from New Zealand is labeled the “Wagyu beef of the seafood world.”
Which to chew on first?
This is a salmon aimed squarely at the premium, branded market that was the last stronghold of Alaska’s most valuable wild salmon. It also happens to be a salmon with a big market advantage. Customers don’t have to wait patiently for the opening of a May fishing season as is the case with Alaska’s best-known salmonid – Copper River king.
“The arrival of fresh Copper River king and sockeye salmon is a well-known spring tradition in Seattle, where the fish are prized for their rich flavor,” KIRO-TV reported earlier this year in its annual report on the coming of the “first-of-the-season kings.”
The fish were flown back to Alaska’s mothership amid the usual annual fanfare featuring what has “become a recent KIRO 7 custom in the last few years, our reporter, this year Rob Munoz, kiss(ing) the first king salmon off the plane.”
But why wait for what KIRO billed as “a culinary and cultural celebration (that) didn’t even exist just a few decades ago” if you can order a comparable product when and where you want if, of course, you can afford it.
“For 25 years New Zealand King Salmon Co. has been breeding Ōra King salmon from stock first imported from California in the 1900s,” wrote Bloomberg’s Kate Krader. “The result is an especially fatty fish with strikingly marbled meat and a sumptuous melt-in-your-mouth texture, like Wagyu beef of the ocean. Chefs compare it to the luxuriousness of raw fatty tuna. The cost is at least twice the price of commodity Atlantic farmed salmon. It’s available in specialty food stores where it costs $30 a pound….”
It is cheaper than wild Alaska king by about $4 a pound and regularly available.
“TAK Room’s chef de cuisine Jarrod Huth chose the salmon because he can get it all year, unlike wild salmon, which is seasonal and available for less than six months,” wrote Krader in a story that reads more like “paid content” than news:
Pesticide-free “Ōra King has scored a “best choice” from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch….
“Playing into the breed’s richness and clean taste is the pristine water it’s raised in. Ōra King eggs are hatched in the South Island’s Takaka Valley in Golden Bay, refreshed with water from Te Waikoropupu Springs, some of the clearest in the world…. (raised) sea farm pens in Marlborough Sounds, where there’s a 98% ratio of water to fish. The roominess (some farms pack up to 50,000 fish in two acres of water) cuts down on waste, sea lice, parasites, and the need for chemicals and antibiotics that have given aquaculture a bad name—and its products an inferior flavor.”
That last line reflects the pitch fans and backers of Alaska wild fish have been trying to spin for decades now in an effort to maintain a niche in the market as the world’s “premium” salmon. The idea took a beating when Alaska fish lost out to farmed fish in a blind taste test among top seafood chefs in the nation’s capital.
The Wagyu beef title hung on a Kiwi farmed fish isn’t going to help with the Alaska industry already facing a market problem because of the lack of a year-round supply of fresh fish, as Krader notes and, in the case of kings (or Chinook), a limited volume of product.
A tiny, winter troll fishery for kings still exits from October to April in the Alaska Panhandle, but it is under attack from fishermen in Canada, Washington and Oregon with streams home to about 85 percent of the catch intercepted in Southeast waters.
Commercial fishing remains a major state industry, but the Wagyu comparison only adds to the problems for Alaska salmon fishermen.
Thanks to global warming, Alaska salmon harvests skyrocketed in the 2010s but can’t begin to match farmed production. Three of every four salmon sold in the world today are farmed and Norway, the world leader in salmon farming, is looking to increase it’s production five to sixfold in the 30 years.
Farmed salmon is already a $5.4 billion per business, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Wild fish are comparatively small potatoes.
In 2017 – a monster year for Alaska with a catch of more than 224 million fish, the third-highest in state history – wild-caught salmon in the U.S. generated total revenues of $688 million, according to U.S. Commerce Department report.
Salmon producers have generated total shareholder returns of 45 to 60 percent since 2012, The Financial Times has reported, which might help explain why the Alaska Permanent Fund has invested significantly in farmed salmon despite a general Alaska contempt for salmon raised in pens.
Aquaculture has become big business, which makes it only natural that an aquaculture feed supplier with the money available to sponsor mushers in the niche sport of sled-dog racing and a desire to sell “specialty animal nutrition products” to upscale pet owners is sponsoring a couple of the Iditarod’s most successful.
Qrill Pet Mushing of Norway, a subsidiary of the world’s largest krill-fishing company, now boasts as “team members” four-time Iditarod champ Dallas Seavey, 32, from Talkeetna and 2018 Iditarod champ Joar Ulsom, a 33-year-old Norwegian who calls Willow, AK home these days.
Qrill is a subsidiary of Aker Biomarine – a $155 million dollar per year, image-conscious, Norwegian company with four massive trawlers and two support ships mining the Antarctic Sea for krill, a small, shrimp-like crustacean. Oslo-based, the company began dragging for krill in 2003 to sell as aquaculture and agriculture feed.
It has since expanded operations, especially sales of krill oil, into the supplements market for humans and pets.
The company has taken great pride in modifying its operations to create “eco-friendly” netting. Traditional trawls, the company says, catch non-target species “such as fish and seals. In the Antarctic’s fragile marine eco-system, (this) unwanted by-catch represents a significant challenge.”
To go “eco-friendly,” Aker turned to a “submerged trawl module (that) minimizes by-catches.” The move has helped shine the companies eco-friendly image.
After being criticized by Greenpeace last year for fishing near penguin breeding areas, Aker agreed to create large buffer areas closed to krill trawling. So far the company has led an industry effort to find peace with environmental activists.
“The Association of Responsible Krill harvesting companies’ support for the creation of a network of marine protected areas (MPAs), including large no-fishing zones, is a truly visionary step that more commercial fishing interests in Antarctica and around the world should follow,” Andrea Kavanagh from the Pew Charitable Trusts says on the Greepeace website. “Cooperation among scientists, governments, industry, and conservation groups is the surest bet to protecting the 30 percent of the ocean that scientists tell us is needed to maintain global ocean health. We expect to see the Weddell Sea and waters off East Antarctica declared marine parks in October. Governments should follow industry’s lead and support MPAs.”
Aker now bills its fullscale entry into the mushing scene as “a journey to investigate the sport of dog mushing. The brand had a fantastic experience with a pilot sponsorship over the last years with Sigrid Ekran, Thomas Wærner and Joar Ulsom, helping to improve their dogs’ overall endurance and well-being.”
It is already pushing krill supplementation as the next big thing in the sport.
“In a study with five weeks of 8 percent krill meal inclusion in diets for Alaskan Huskies prior to the 2016 Iditarod dogsled race – a thousand mile endurance exercise known to induce muscle damage and inflammation – showed that the 40 percent increase of the Omega-3 Index in the krill group decreased muscle damage and inflammation when compared to the control group,” it says.
“Now, QRILL Pet wants to take the sponsorship to the next level and thrive further research to improve the health and well-being of sled dogs, while building the sport and reaching more awareness globally.”
The company’s media would indicate it hopes to supercharge sled-dog racing the way it claims to have boosted salmon farming.
“Encouraging a far better uptake of feed than conventional fishmeal, Qrill Aqua is proven to help speed up farmed fish growth by between 10 percent and a staggering 25 percent,” the company website says. “This effect is particularly beneficial for stocks such as rainbow trout, which typically suffer reduced appetite with plant-based feeds.”
Norway is the world leader in farmed salmon. It last year exported about 760,000 tons of the fish. It’s stable farm production annually produces two to three times the volume of Alaska’s seasonal, hatchery-boosted, wild-caught fishery, and a story on the Aker website notes that “in Norway there is ambition to grow aquaculture to a five or six fold increase by 2050. This growth clearly needs to be kept healthy and sustainable for the fish, the human consumer and the capacity of our oceans in terms of marine feed ingredients.”
The ever-increasing production of farmed salmon in Norway, Chile, Scotland and elsewhere has effectively capped prices for wild-caught Alaska salmon.
“Given the rapid growth of farmed salmon supply to the U.S., European Union and Japanese fresh and frozen markets, and the high share of farmed salmon in total
supply to each of these markets…it seems reasonable to expect that growth in farmed salmon supply would have had a negative effect on wild salmon prices in all three of these markets,” the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) concluded years ago.
The report found the canned salmon market the bright spot for Alaska “given the very small contribution of farmed salmon to world canned salmon supply,” but cautioned that “canned markets may have been indirectly affected by farmed salmon. By depressing markets for fresh and frozen salmon, farmed salmon may have caused wild salmon
producers to can a relatively larger share of wild catches, leading to greater supply of canned salmon and lower canned salmon prices than would otherwise have occurred.”
Competition has instead skyrocketed, and salmon farmers have taken over the market thanks to technological breakthroughs.
Aker was last year handed Europe’s business “Award for Innovation” for its success in “developing and selling unique food and nutritional supplements for humans and powerful ingredients for fish and animal feed.”
The company nows wants to bring innovation to the Iditarod.
In a study published in a veterinary journal, it claimed krill supplements gave Iditarod racing dogs a “significantly higher omega-3 index, which correlated with lower inflammation and a tendency for reduced muscle damage after this long-distance sled dog competition,” but conceded the conclusion needed “to be confirmed by more controlled studies, since it was a field study and effects of race speed or other performance-related factors such as fitness and musher skill on the results cannot be excluded.”
The company believes a performance boost could come from modifying levels of choline, an essential nutrient necessary for maintaining metabolic functions.
“…In a long-lasting race setting…a drop in plasma choline is expected as seen in humans,” Lena Burri, director of research and development of animal health and nutrition for Aker said. “As choline is important for muscle function and nerve transmission, a decline might negatively affect the performance of these dogs.
“Furthermore, the dogs were higher in betaine, a product of choline thought to promote muscle function in humans, and showed significantly reduced homocysteine, an amino acid know to have a negative effect on heart health.”
Along with experiments with dogs, the company has been working with the Pure Science Triathlon team and Isklar Norseman Xtreme Triathlon to study Omega-3 fatty acids in athletes. Those studies found omega-3s levels that drop during high-intensity training could be reversed with high doses of krill oil thus speeding recovery times and helping to restore immune function known to decline in hard-working athletes.
The company also claimed athletes with high omega-3 indexes were 48 minutes faster on average on the Norseman triathlon bike leg than athletes with low omega-3 indexes, although the finding might be meaningless given the best indicator of performance differences between the athletes in that race was “exercise volume.”
As famed doper Lance Armstrong, the disgraced Tour de France cyclist, has noted, there are no magic bullets in the form of diets, supplements or even dope that will make a winning athlete out of a couch potato. Athletes, canine or human, still need to put in the time and do the work to become winners.
The benefits from tweaking or supplementing diets – or doping – come from allowing athletes to accumulate more training without suffering from injury or overtraining. It’s why professional athletes are constantly in search of the hot new diet or supplement, or dope.
The first two make the athletic community a prime target for supplement manufacturers in a global sports nutrition market now reported to be worth $44 billion per year, and many pet owners appear to be suckers for anything they think will make Fido healthier.