Story last updated at 3/11/2009 - 10:58 am
Japan is Alaska's most important seafood customer, and a sliding economy there can be worrisome for the state's seafood industry. But it is important not to jump to conclusions when it comes to predicting how it will affect fish prices.
"You can't just look at the state of the economy and say that explains everything, and all fish prices will be going down," said Gunnar Knapp, a fisheries economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage. "It is always important to keep in mind that fish prices are driven by lots of different factors, and you need to look at all their combined effects to even begin to understand what might be driving a price. And it is often hard to separate how much influence each effect has."
Knapp said there are two things that should always be considered anytime you're talking prices for any kind of Alaska fish product: supplies from around the world and currency exchange rates.
"If the value of the foreign currency is getting stronger relative to the dollar, that can drive up prices even if other factors, like the economy, are pushing them down," Knapp said.
That has been the trend in Japan, where the value of the yen has increased dramatically over the past 18 months.
"In mid-2007, a hundred yen was worth 82 cents, and now it's worth $1.11. That's an increase of 20 percent," Knapp said. "So that is a very significant factor for any product selling to Japan. It would suggest that even if prices were going down, they could still be up by 10 percent or so in what the Japanese buyers are willing to pay in dollars."
That is certainly how it's played out for the Bering Sea crab fisheries. Japan purchased the bulk of the red king crab from Bristol Bay, and at 91 yen to the dollar, snow crab was also seen as a good buy.
Japanese buyers paid $3.75 a pound for snow crab, said market expert Ken Talley, and with freezers nearly empty of holdings, U.S. crab lovers are also eager to buy.
Meanwhile, the herring roe market is also taking an interesting turn. Herring roe was a best- seller last year, according to 18 of Japan's largest seafood companies. Traditionally, herring roe was a prized - and pricey - delicacy in Japan, where virtually all of Alaska's product goes. About a decade ago, however, changing appetites pushed down interest in the roe, and the market has been in a slump ever since.
The global recession appears to be changing that trend. Seafood.com reported that sales of flavored and salted herring roe are on a big upswing, reflecting belt tightening by consumers who are dining out less frequently.
More Europeans are eating seafood at home more often as well, as the value of the euro and the British pound have dropped like a stone for the past year.
"This exchange rate factor that's been a good thing for us in terms of the Japanese market is probably going to play the other way in our European markets, which is unfortunate," Knapp said.
New dates, digs for ComFish
Kodiak is cornering the "fish angle" of Alaska's 50th anniversary celebrations. The push to statehood was driven in large part by Alaska's fisheries. Kodiak is using its annual ComFish trade show to showcase 50 years of Alaska's fishing and seafood processing industry.
ComFish has attracted a lot of interest from new exhibitors from as far away as New Zealand, said Deb King, executive director of the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce, sponsor of the event, now in its 29th year.
"We got a lot of enthusiasm from folks at Expo in Seattle," King said. "They are very eager to visit a busy working waterfront in one of our nation's biggest and most diverse fishing ports. Plus, nothing can replace face to face interactions, the chance to network and catch up with old friends."
Also planned is a 50th anniversary recognition banquet to honor "movers and shakers" in Alaska's seafood industry.
"That will bring some really high profile people to town," King said, adding that she is awaiting confirmations from Gov. Palin and Alaska's congressional offices.
ComFish has new dates and a new venue this year: April 23-25 at the Kodiak Harbor Convention Center right downtown. Tickets for the seafood banquet extravaganza are on sale now at www.comfishalaska.com - and they'll go fast.
Breweries could be a new source for fish food! Colorado's New Belgium Brewery has teamed with a company called Oberon FMR (fish meal replacement) to produce a feed from the thick brown dregs that occur as a byproduct of beer brewing. New Belgium produces up to 50,000 lbs of the sludge each day, and Oberon believes it can convert the stuff into a rich source of fish feed. It's being tested now at the University of Idaho.
It turns out that the swarms of Namura jellyfish that have been plaguing Japanese fisheries can be put to good use. Japanese scientists at Tokai University have discovered the jellyfish have a protein called mucin that helps regrow the cartilage in joints. In tests with rabbits, worn-down cartilage totally regrew in just 10 weeks. The research will be reported this month at the Japanese Society for Regenerative Medicine in Tokyo.
Londoners have found a solution to invasive species - eat them! Mitten crabs are an Asian delicacy, but they've been tearing up the Thames River. Health officials have tested the crabs and announced last week they are safe to eat. The two-year pilot program was the idea of London's Natural History Museum.
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. She lives in Kodiak.