Story last updated at 12/2/2009 - 12:13 pm
Frozen salmon is better for the planet than fresh, because it takes so much less energy to get from the ocean to dinner plates. That's according to a study by Oregon-based Ecotrust which studied factors from catching salmon, keeping it cold and flying them to markets around the world.
"It's exciting to see," said Ray Riutta, director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. "There was a stigma a few years ago that it had to be fresh. We've done a good job of changing that perception."
ASMI has seen steady growth in its national "Cook it Frozen" campaign, Riutta said. He credits chefs for building consumer confidence in frozen fish, as nearly 60 percent of Americans eat seafood at restaurants.
Frozen salmon can be transported by freighter or train, which uses far less fossil fuel than jets. Farmed salmon puts a heavy hidden demand on fossil fuels, mainly from feeds that use forage fish, or corn and soy, which are fuel intensive to grow and harvest. Ecotrust credited seine-caught wild salmon for having a lower carbon footprint than troll-caught fish.
Nearly half of America's 110 million households now eat frozen seafoods, says market researcher Packaged Facts, and frozen seafood has become the fastest growing industry sector since 2000.
The group predicts that demand for frozen seafood will continue to grow due to more varieties of "better for you" entrees that cater to time-crunched families. The acceptance of frozen seafood has big implications for Alaska. It equates to pennies or nickels per pound in transportation costs instead of dimes and quarters for fresh fish. It also reduces risk, according to salmon market expert Chris McDowell of the Juneau-based McDowell Group.
"Filleting salmon and sending it out fresh represents a tremendous risk in terms of shelf life. That is a really important value component among big buyers," he said.
The Ecotrust report says if salmon lovers switched to buying 75 percent frozen salmon, it would have a greater positive impact on the environment than if all of Europe ate salmon that is farmed locally.
Big bucks for bait
Alaska's herring roe fisheries grab all the headlines each spring, when the ripened fish are harvested primarily for their eggs. Fishermen get paid between $200 and $600 per short ton for the roe herring, virtually all which goes to Japan. Another herring fishery - called food and bait - runs behind the scenes through much of the year. It brings big bucks as bait - at Upper Cook Inlet, for example - up to $2,000 a ton.
"In the Inlet the halibut and king salmon sport fisheries buy it for bait, and also the commercial fishermen use it for halibut bait, said Jeff Fox, area management biologist at ADF&G in Soldotna.
Between 15 and 20 setnet operators take part in the Inlet fishery, catching from 15 to 30 tons a year. The herring are caught about a week before they are ripe, Fox said.
"The fishermen prefer the green herring because it stays on the hook better. So that's why it commands a better price than sac roe," he explained.
Sellers in Cook Inlet get around $1/lb for herring, or up to $12 for a package of seven frozen fish. At Dutch Harbor last year two seiners and one gillnetter fetched between $300-$490/per ton, totaling $604,000 for the region's 1,722 ton quota.
Jeff Fox said demand for herring bait far outstrips supply. In fact, huge amounts are sourced each year from the east coast and Canada to make up for the shortfall. The bait herring will be even harder to come by next year, as quotas from Labrador to Cape Hatteras are set to be slashed 45 percent to 109,000 tons. That could increase the value of Pacific bait herring even more.
SALMON PRICES DOWN
The global recession took a bite out of wild salmon prices this summer for both fishermen and processors. Although the coast-wide supply increased by 16.8 percent over last year, the average dock price of $.51/lb. was a drop of 20.3 percent - but still an improvement over the $.44/lb. average in 2007.
According to Seafood Trend's Ken Talley, all but sockeye salmon prices had double-digit declines at the docks this year. King salmon took the biggest hit - the average price of $2.62/lb was a drop of 42.3 percent. Coho prices averaged $.86/lb, a drop of 32.8 percent. For chums, the average dock price dropped to $.44/lb, down from $.59/lb. Unfortunately, the huge drop in the pink salmon catch couldn't offset the bad economy - pink prices fell to $.22/lb. this year, down from $.35/lb. in 2008.
Alaska's most valuable salmon - sockeye - accounted for about 56 percent of the total value of this year's catch. The average dock price (before any post season adjustments was $.80/lb down only 4.8 percent from last year and exactly the same as 2007.
On the bright side, Talley said the lower prices kept wild salmon in front of consumers all summer, when farmed salmon were short and high-priced. Talley predicts that helped prime the pump for a market that could be ready to boom as the economic recession tapers off next year.
Alaska's 2009 salmon haul is valued so far at just over $370 million at the docks, compared to $452 million last year, for a smaller catch.
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her weekly Fish Factor column appears in a dozen newspapers and web outlets. Her daily Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations around Alaska. Welch lives in Kodiak.