Two leading researchers from the University of Illinois/College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences recently visited several Alaska processing plants in Kodiak and Seward. Both have backgrounds in the meat industry, and they were amazed and impressed with seafood production and procedures.
"I expected the plants to be small operations, but they are huge," said food chemist Susan Brewer after visiting Kodiak's Ocean Beauty and Alaska Pacific Seafoods plants.
"They are very mechanized and have processing equipment I've never seen. The workers were all so professional and efficient. It was a real education - especially pumping the fish off the boats," she added with a laugh.
After watching rockfish fillets being flash frozen and boxed up for shipment, and fresh salmon making its way along processing lines minutes after being offloaded from a tender boat, meat scientist Floyd McKeith said "without a doubt" Alaska has what it takes to create more seafood offerings.
"You've got the plants, the people and very high quality raw materials that will produce excellent products. It's an opportunity for the fish industry to explore alternative ways to add more value here in Alaska before it leaves the state. That's the name of the game across all muscle foods in the U.S. and we're here to help," he said.
McKeith and Brewer agree that increased awareness of the healthfulness of wild salmon helps set the stage for acceptance by baby food manufactures.
They caution, however, that geography might initially dictate success in the marketplace. "In the mid-west or southwest, it might be very challenging. On the west and east coasts, I assume there would be more opportunities because people there eat much more fish. It depends on how it is marketed," McKeith said.
Susan Brewer, who also is a nutrition specialist, said fish based baby foods are far more likely to be accepted today than 10 or 20 years ago.
"Partly because our food habits have changed and there is much more ethnic diversity. People are also more informed about nutrition, and there is tremendous interest in health and wellness in this generation of parents than ever before," she said.
The fact that salmon is now so familiar to Americans also is a big plus. "We can buy salmon every day in our local supermarkets in the mid-west, and it is always on the menus at upscale restaurants. That wasn't the case ten years ago. If the gatekeepers, especially the Mom's, eat it and like it, they will feed it to their kids," Brewer said. "Food habits are shaped up to five years old. If they are not introduced to fish by then, chances are they won't choose it later on. Getting to kids early is the key."
The Illinois scientists are collaborating on the federally funded, multi-year project with University of Alaska researchers at Kodiak's Fishery Industrial Technology Center, with oversight from the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. Along with salmon baby foods (pate and chunk style), the researchers are also developing packaged salmon chunks for salads, and shelf-stable salmon powders and sprinkles that can be added to "do it yourself" dips, sauces and cheese spreads.
Bristol Bay runs on salmon
The rivers that flow into Bristol Bay comprise some of the last great wild salmon ecosystems in North America, and they support the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Bristol Bay is Alaska's most valuable salmon fishery and has the most permit holders (2,849) - and nearly one-third of all earnings from Alaska salmon fishing come from Bristol Bay.
The region is salmon ecosystem dependent, and accounts for nearly 64 percent of all employment with an associated payroll of about $190 million in 2005. Salmon also represent 52 percent of the region's subsistence harvests.
Those are just a few of the findings in a report titled "Economics of Wild Salmon Watersheds at Bristol Bay" unveiled by Scott Goldsmith of the University of Alaska's Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER). The report, funded by Trout Unlimited, estimates the economic values associated primarily with fisheries and wildlife in watersheds of Bristol Bay.
"The fish and the entire environment around the salmon drives not only the commercial fishery but also almost all the recreation and tourism activity. The estimated payroll associated with salmon ecosystem dependent jobs was $188.8 million in 2005. Tourism adds about another $100 million plus, mostly for fishing,but also for wildlife viewing and other activities in the region," Goldsmith told KDLG.
Next to commercial fishing and processing, sport fishing is the second most important economic engine in Bristol Bay, accounting for $122 million last year. "That comes mostly from nonresidents who come to fish at high end lodges," Goldsmith said, adding that anglers say they are attracted by the region's uncrowded, remote, and wild setting.
Last year nearly 64,409 recreational visitors came to the region, spending nearly $152.644 million on trip related expenditures. Most trips were related to sport fishing, although hunting and "passive use" trips such as wildlife viewing, kayaking, bird watching, hiking, etc. were also popular and accounted for significant spending.
Bristol Bay's population is estimated at 7,600 people in 25 communities. The share of the population that is Alaska native is 70 percent, compared to Alaska as a whole at 16 percent. Goldsmith said the extreme seasonal nature of the regional economy is startling.
The Bristol Bay Salmon Watershed Study includes visitor reactions to the proposed copper and gold mine and accompanying roads that would run through the heart of the region. Find the report at www.iser.uaa.alaska.edu.