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Alaskan salmon face stiff competition from Norway

Global exports of wild salmon caught off the coast of Alaska are struggling to compete with the international sales of salmon farmed in Norway, according to a leading seafood promoter.

Seafood is Alaska’s top export by far, usually topping $3 billion in sales each year to 120 countries around the world, and comprising 55 percent of the USA’s total seafood exports. Credit for the state’s export sales goes mostly to the international program run by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) which runs regional offices in Japan, China, Brazil, London, Spain, France, Germany and Eastern Europe. The overseas marketing reps (OMRs) work under contract with ASMI to coordinate hundreds of seafood promotions each year to build the Alaska brand.   

“We work closely with overseas trade groups, food service and HRIs (hotels, restaurants, institutions),” says Hannah Lindoff, ASMI international director. “We also do promotions with chefs, schools, and caterers, and some programs have advertising elements as well.

Despite this, however, the state’s seafood sales could be improved, according to Lindoff, and face stiff competition.  

“We think of ourselves as having the greatest seafood in the world, but we are only two percent of the world supply and we are up against a lot of competition,” Lindhoff explains. “Especially in Europe, where Norway can provide a lot of farmed fish and they have a very aggressive marketing agency. It’s not a fair fight.”

Norway’s annual marketing budget tops $50 million, derived from a small tax on its seafood exports. That compares to an ASMI export budget of less than $7 million from a mix of grants and federal dollars. The state of Alaska contributes $1 million to ASMI’s overall budget of roughly $22 million, of which $16.5 million is paid by the seafood industry. The state plans to zero out its funds to ASMI in the coming fiscal year.

Key markets

China is Alaska’s largest seafood export market in terms of volume and value – accounting for 35 percent and 27 percent, respectively, in 2015. However, most of these fish aren’t ending up on Chinese dinner plates, as up to 90 percent of the seafood is sold to secondary processors which send finished products to other markets around the world.     

Japan is Alaska’s largest and most established market for finished products, Lindoff says and the bulk of ASMI’s budget goes to maintaining customers there. “Alaska is facing lots of competition and a declining consumer base in Japan,” she adds.  

Europeans rank second as customers for Alaskan seafood, thanks in part to the UK. “Alaska salmon has been going to the UK for over 100 years and canned salmon is a traditional product for them. It’s part of their culture, but it is a declining market,” Lindoff says.   

Alaska’s newest marketing program is in Brazil, where ASMI has been able to capitalize on its Japanese connection. “Brazil has the largest population of expat Japanese in the world, so we already have a population there that is familiar with Alaska seafood. We do several trade shows in Brazil, including a Japan Trade Show every year,” Lindoff continues.  

 Spain is another new and growing buyer for Alaskan seafood. “This is a country where Alaska salmon is competing to be seen as better quality over farmed fish,” Lindoff reflects, adding that ASMI has taken advantage of a big downturn in farmed production from Chile.      

“The growing trend for sushi and Asian cuisine also has really helped Alaska salmon gain a foothold in Spain,” she says, “and it is a traditional market for Alaska cod.”

ASMI also is trying to expand the brand in Eastern Europe to make up for losses from an ongoing Russian embargo on US seafood, by building a presence in Latvia, Estonia, Romania and Ukraine. It’s a tough go, Lindoff admits, because many nations simply are not familiar with Alaska or its seafood.

Untapped potential      

The use of eCommerce, especially in China, is helping to increase the appetite for Alaskan seafood. “Our marketing dollars can go much farther online. It allows us to widely advertise Alaska’s core messages and we’ve seen millions of dollars in sales through eCommerce in China,” Lindoff says, adding that the same strategy is paying off with canned salmon in the UK.         

To boost more brand awareness, ASMI also brings chefs and seafood savvy press people from Asia and Europe to Alaska to generate free publicity when they go home.         

Overseas marketing reps from eight countries are scheduled to arrive in Kodiak on August 7 to tour processing plants, visit a remote salmon fishing site and hold brainstorming sessions.

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“Visiting Alaska is always one of our most powerful tools,” Lindoff says. “It’s great when you have limited time and budget to go to a place like Kodiak where you get so much of the seafood industry in one place.”

Laine Welch

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