Bering Sea Fisheries: Groundfish Faces Marketing Challenges
The first cod hauled through the moonpool aboard the new freezer longliner Blue North was memorialized in this photo late last year. Photo courtesy of Blue North Fisheries.
A supermarket ad in Anchorage newspapers in early March boasted of fresh cod fillets for $6.99 a pound, subject to fishing and weather conditions.
The same supermarket flyer offered an assortment of other previously wild Alaska seafoods, including whole wild Alaska sockeye salmon at $4.99 a pound, wild Alaska king crab legs and wild halibut filets for $19.99 a pound. The colorful four-page flyer also featured deals on beef, pork and poultry, at or below the price of the wild Alaska seafood products.
Over the last 10 to 12 years, consumption of wild Alaska seafood has gone up a bit, and is maintaining that position of growth, according to a spokesperson for one major mass retailer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile farmed fish, like tilapia, has plateaued over the past several years, and in prior years was in decline in the Pacific Northwest, he said. Tilapia remains very popular in the Southeastern part of the United States, and a good item in the Northeast, though not as popular on the West Coast, he said.
Tilapia, a common name for nearly 100 species of cichlid fish, has grown in popularity in the United States over the last decade and a half, mainly due to its cheap price, easy preparation and mild taste. As a farmed fish, it has gained a derogatory reputation among aficionados of wild seafood, and competes heartily with wild caught Alaska pollock, which has gained in popularity in frozen fish sticks produced by the likes of Trident Seafoods, Van de Kamp, Mrs. Paul's, Gorton, Walmart and other seafood processors.
Trident's Ultimate Fish Stick, a very popular item at Costco stores, can be cooked in a conventional oven, microwave oven or deep-fried. A serving of three pieces of Trident fish sticks, which are 65 percent Alaska pollock, provide 11 grams of protein in those 160 calories.
Along with the price, those breaded fish sticks from Trident or elsewhere (the amount of actual pollock in each brand varies) provide a flexible meal option for families on a tight budget and time schedule. They can be cooked in less than a maximum of 15 minutes and go great in a sandwich with tartar sauce, with fries, with raw veggies and in tacos with a dash of coleslaw.
Alaska pollock is also popular in some fast food restaurant sandwiches, including McDonalds. Subway restaurants will soon be offering a new sandwich featuring wild caught Alaska pollock, Stefanie Moreland of Trident Seafoods, told participants at a business symposium in Anchorage on March 3 hosted by the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference. Trident Seafoods is working hard on research and development aimed at new product forms and new markets, and shortening the supply chain, Moreland said. "This is all about our commitment to the people in fisheries; we are doing our best," she said.
Pacific cod, when available, is another attractive fresh wild seafood product, the spokesman for the major mass-market retailer said. His company could sell more if it was available, but it's not always available, depending on the harvest and the weather, he said. Ready to heat and eat Pacific cod products are also a popular frozen product, along with rockfish and halibut filets.
Along with the competition from farmed whitefish, wild groundfish species from the ocean waters offshore of Alaska are faced with market competition brought on by the strength of the US dollar.
"The vessels I work for can't make a living based on the price of pollock, said Julie Bonney, of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank in Kodiak, speaking in a panel discussion at the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference's annual symposium in Anchorage. "They are scrambling."
Bonney said she felt prices were currently at the bottom and it would take two to three years to work their way up. Another long-term challenge to the groundfish fisheries has to do with climate change, Bonney said. "We are seeing a lot of weirdness in the Gulf of Alaska, whale die-offs, changes in the ecosystem."
And, said Bonney, to keep that fishery viable, what is needed is management structures that are flexible. "Many think of the seafood industry as a way of life," she said. "It is also a business."
Concerns about the impact of climate impacting the ecosystem were also of concern to those on the SWAMC panel with Bonney, including Unalaska Mayor Frank Kelty, who worked for 30 years as a seafood processor, and Ernie Weiss, natural resources director for the Aleutians East Borough.
They urged more interaction by Alaskans with legislators in Juneau to assure the availability of funding for sustainable fisheries and coastal community planning to cope with the challenges of climate change.
The National Marine Fisheries Service is also taking steps to support the sustainability and profitability of bering sea and other fisheries off the coast of Alaska, using technological innovators, noted Steve Ignell, deputy director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, in a recent article.
Working with the fisheries industry, federal scientists are using camera systems to monitor fish catch and identify the best ways to safely release unwanted species, Ignell wrote. NMFS scientists have developed software applications to automate the process of identifying fish species and measure fish length. They are also expanding the use of seafloor-moored sonar devices to collect information in spawning areas for pollock and other commercially important species.
And they are testing the use of low-power fisheries acoustic equipment onboard solar-and-wind-powered unmanned sailing vessels called Saildrones, which were employed this past summer in the bering sea.
"The technology is helping us better understand the relationship between depleted fur seal populations and their commercially important prey species, pollock," Ignell said.
Beyond the competition for market share, in competition with farmed fish, and the strong current value of the US dollar, seafood processors in the groundfish fishery, as well as processors of other wild caught seafood in Alaska, are facing serious employment issues.
Ultimately, the status of the federal H-2B via program, as it relates to Alaska seafood processing, will have a big impact on whether processors for the groundfish and other fisheries get enough workers to process fish this year.
The H-2B visa nonimmigrant program permits employers to hire foreign workers to come temporarily to the US to perform temporary nonagricultural services on a one-time, seasonal, peak load or intermittent basis.
Employers seeking to employ temporary H-2B workers must apply for temporary employment certification, indicating that there are not a sufficient number of Americans capable of performing those services.
The problem with the H-2B program, said Brian Gannon, senior director of corporate relations for United Work and Travel, which is engaged in recruiting overseas workers for Alaska's fishing industry, is the competition with other US employers seeking seasonal workers. "We are held to the same standards as landscaping companies in New York and Philadelphia," said Gannon, in a telephone conversation from Prague, where he was working with processors of Alaska seafood to recruit for seafood processing jobs. "They are doing landscaping jobs in an area with 45 million people."
There is a cap of 33,000 H-2B visas for the six-month period beginning on October 1 and another 33,000-person cap on the second period, beginning after April 1.
Alaska's salmon fisheries bring in many seafood workers from out of the country, the start date being about June 1 for salmon, but we can't file for the visas for 90 days before the start date, and by then that first cap is used up by employers engaged in painting, landscaping and construction.
"The timing of that cap automatically precludes Alaska and we are held by the same standards as the long-term non-seasonal landscaping jobs," he said. "This year there will be well-known seafood companies operating in Alaska who won't get their workforce because of what these other companies enjoy."
Gannon said his firm has requested a meeting with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan regarding the returning worker exemption under H-2B, which was in place last year. The returning worker exemption, which expired last year, had allowed workers who had previously been in the US on an H-2B visa granted between October 2012 and September 2015 to be cap-exempted for fiscal 2016. When the exemption program expired last September, Congress opted not to reinstate the program for fiscal 2017.
The best hope for Alaska's processors is that Congress opts to return that returning worker exemption by April 9, Gannon said. "If it is not included, then we start running out of Hail Mary passes.
"The real sadness is that it's not about these workers. They come. They work. They get paid. A lot of the money goes to their own countries, but the people outside the seafood industry don't understand that when these workers get paid that money gets re-spent (in the US)", he said. "They think it is the (business) owner taking American jobs, but in fact they are supporting local businesses.
"If they don't have a full workforce, the fishermen might be put on
After efforts to recruit more processing workers in Europe in early March, Gannon said he was heading to Washington, DC in hopes of getting that returning worker exemption reinstated in time to benefit Alaska processors for the 2017 fisheries.