Eating more fish

But little of it appears to be Alaskan

The National Seafood Institute has proclaimed 2021 a “Record Year for Seafood Consumption” in the U.S., which would at first blush look like great news for Alaska’s commercial fishing industry.

A deeper dive into the data, however, presents a different picture.

As in previous years, shrimp consumption leads the list of seafood Americans are eating. They ate five pounds in 2020 and that grew to almost six pounds in 2021.

Unfortunately, Alaska shrimp harvests are small verging on tiny.

Most of the shrimp Americans eat is imported, and roughly 80 percent of imported shrimp is farm-raised, primarily in Asia, Ecuador, and India,” according to a Texas A&M University examination..

Of the other 20 percent, about three-quarters is caught in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, although most coastal states have small shrimp fisheries and the number of shrimp farms appears to be on the rise across the country.

“Shrimp farming taking off in the US,” Seafood Source headlined in March, citing the strong market for the crustaceans and technological changes in aquaculture that have encouraged start-ups in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and elsewhere.

Salmon sales

While Alaska doesn’t produce many shrimp, it does produce a lot of salmon, and per capita salmon consumption was up more than half a pound in 2021 with a reported annual consumption of 3.38 pounds, according to the NFI report.

That will likely sound like a tiny amount to Alaskans used to eating salmon twice a week or more, and per capita American salmon consumption pales compared to that of Norwegians who eat about three times as about as much per capita on an annual basis, according to an Astute Analytica report on global salmon consumption.

Most of that salmon is grown on salmon farms in Norway, the world leader in salmon production. The country produced more than 1.5 million metric tonnes of salmon in 2022 with Chile adding another 693,000 tonnes, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 

The problem for Alaska fisheries is that most of the salmon eaten in America is produced by those two countries. Statista, a global data website, pegged the per capita consumption of farmed Atlantic salmon in the U.S. at 3.55 pounds in 2019, which would be more than Americans are now eating.

Statista’s assessment is surely inflated, but there is no argument that farmed salmon have taken over an American market once dominated by wild salmon and, for a time, by wild salmon from Alaska.

That all changed come the new millennium.

“Between 2000 and 2004, about 78 percent of fresh and frozen salmon consumption in the United States was imported farmed salmon,” the University of Alaska’s Institution for Social and Economic Research reported in 2007.

The American market has remained dominated by foreign salmon ever since in large part because they can supply fresh salmon on a daily basis. Most of the Alaska fish are harvested over the course of a couple of months and frozen or canned.

The cheap fish

Alaska has, however, continued as a big player in budget salmon both in the U.S. and globally.

ISER in 2017 reported that about 16 percent of total U.S. salmon consumption remained canned salmon, and noted that “45 percent of Pacific salmon (almost all of it Alaskan) was canned while almost no Atlantic (framed) salmon was canned.”

U.S. consumption of canned salmon has slipped since but increased elsewhere.

Alaska continues to dominate the canned salmon business, but domestic consumption is so low it doesn’t even make NFI’s top-10 chart which ends with clams consumed in the volume of 0.26 pounds per year, up 0.11 pounds since 2020.

Canned tuna is number three on the NTI’s top-10 list at 1.9 pounds per year, but that’s down seven-tenths of a pound since 2020.

“Canned products (now) account for slightly less than one-fourth of the seafood consumed in the U.S., and the amount has decreased steadily over the past two decades,” NOAA’s Seafood Health Facts website reports. 

“Canned tuna represents about 60 percent of all the canned seafood consumed in the U.S., but the amount of canned tuna consumed has fallen from a high of 3.9 pounds per person in 1989 to 2.1 pounds in 2017. Canned shellfish represents over 13 percent of all canned products consumed, followed by sardines at 6.5 percent.”

The good news for Alaska is that the global canned salmon market looks much better and “is expected to start growing” owing to the health benefits associated with consumption of salmon,” according to Allied Market Research. 

“The increase in people’s acceptance for ready-to-eat foods along with the health benefits associated with canned salmon has resulted in rapid market expansion.

“Globally,” the report added, “the canned salmon market share is being driven by industrial automation and technical improvements in the seafood sector.

“Robotics and automation aid in the reduction of production costs while also improving product quality. Fish and fish products are received, frozen, sorted, sliced, washed, salted, dried, smoked, pressed, cooled, and packaged. Handling of such products becomes easy with use of automated procedures. Such developments drive the canned salmon market.”

Automation has been creeping into Alaska processing facilities but has been slowed by high conversion costs. Still, Seattle-based Trident Seafoods brags that its “Kodiak facility was expanded in 2015 to include a new, fully-automated H&G (head and gut) production line for Alaska pollock and salmon.”

Baader, a company based in Germany, now also sells machines that will sort, filet, skin and debone fish, but the machinery is costly, and Alaska processors can get the job done cheaper with labor imported for the summer.

More than 80 percent of those now employed in Alaska seafood processing are nonresidents, according to the Alaska Department of Labor, and they earn less than $3,300 per month on average despite working considerable overtime.

Labor does spin all that overtime in a positive way, telling prospective seafood workers that “a strong salmon run with work in excess of 14 hours per day, seven days a week and overtime
at time and a half make it possible for an entry-level worker to earn and save a good income in eight weeks.”

Alaskans have not been lining up to take advantage of that deal.

“After a sharp decline in workers in 2020 (due to the pandemic),” Labor reports, “the seafood processing industry added more than 600 workers in 2021…(but) the industry recovered just over half of the nonresidents lost in 2020 but continued to lose residents.”

Plus for fishermen

Lower production costs result in a product that can be sold for less while maintaining profitability. This helps maintain canned salmon’s status as a “budget-friendly” product as Epicurious magazine puts it.

This, along with fish meal to be used in dog and animal feed, helps provide a strong market for the farmed and wild pink salmon that now dominate the Alaska harvest.

Despite another monster run of sockeye salmon expected in Bristol Bay this summer, Fish and Game is predicting about 65 percent of the Alaska salmon harvest will be pinks, many of which still have to be canned or ground into fish meal because they are too small to produce more valuable filets.

The upside of dominance in the “budget-friendly” niche and increasing markets for fishmeal is that companies are able to sell a lot of product and no longer have to resort to contentious “roe-stripping” of the fish for their valuable eggs with the carcasses being discarded.

The downside is that in order to maintain profitability the companies need to run highly efficient operations with access to comparatively cheap resources.

All of which help explain why Alaska pink salmon, the smallest of the Pacific species and the one most often stuffed into a can, have paid an average dock price ranging from a high of 43 cents per pound to a low of seven cents per pound since 2010, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data. 

The high came in 2018. The low was in 2002 and 2003. The 2021 price paid fishermen (the last year for which the state has posted data) was 36 cents – three cents less than in 1989 despite steady inflation.

The online inflation calculator set up by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 36 cents per pound in ’89 would have been the equivalent of between 85 and 86 cents per pound in 2021 dollars.

The closest Alaska ex-vessel pink salmon prices have ever come to that is when the average hit 66 cents per pound in 1988. Chum salmon, a fish significantly larger than a pink which can be fileted and sold fresh or frozen as “keta” salmon in U.S. markets, was in 2021 netting commercial fishermen only two cents per pound more on average in 2021.

Being a commercial fisherman in Alaska is a tough business, and despite the bump up in American seafood consumption, there is no sign the markets are going to make the business any easier going forward.












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