Japan drives market in Alaska herring roe

Laine Welch

Alaska's most lucrative roe herring fishery is set to get under way any day at Sitka Sound, starting a circuit that each year goes all the way to Nome. The herring are valued for their eggs, and harvesters get paid according to the amount of roe in the fish.

The Sitka Sound harvest could approach 19,500 tons for the fishery's 50 permit holders. Last year, after price adjustments, they got $690 per ton for their catches, making the fishery worth more than $12 million at the docks, far more than halibut or black cod.

The Bristol Bay roe herring fishery at Togiak was worth about $4 million to seiners and setnetters in 2010, and more than $2 million at Kodiak.

But virtually all the roe herring goes to one buyer: Japan. In fact, Japan is Alaska's No. 1 customer for all its seafood; Japan imports more seafood than any other nation in the world.

The northeast coast of Japan hardest hit by the horrific quake and tsunami is home to the bulk of Japan's seafood industry for both fishing and processing -- especially roe products.

"You have to look at this on a species-specific level," said John Sackton, editor of www.seafood.com. "And for us we have black cod, crab, herring roe, salmon roe, Bristol Bay salmon, pollock and cod. The real question is what's happening in those species, and to what extent have the Japanese been driving the market.

"You can rank them and say that the Japanese drive the market for herring roe and pollock roe," Sackton continued. "After that they drive the market for crab, and their approach to surimi has an impact on the pollock market. But when you get down to fish like Alaska salmon and black cod, the Japanese are not really the market leaders anymore. There are plenty of other buyers who will step in and purchase those products."

Sackton said the "buying psychology" might shift as the Japanese focus on rebuilding.

"It could be both the buyers and Japanese consumers don't feel this is a time to focus on luxury goods and they want to put their resources elsewhere," he said. Sackton and other experts said impacts on seafood trade are too soon to detect and that this week's International Boston Seafood Show will "tell the tale."

Meanwhile, fish prices are the last thing on people's minds in Japan's fishing towns.

Japan is a fishing nation in its own right, and an estimated 6,000 fishing vessels, 1,100 seafood facilities, 40,000 workers and 40,000 fishermen lost their livelihoods, according to the Japan Blog by Intrafish.

The blog said seafood production plants are either gone or buried, and the coastal towns are piled high with rotting fish from the washed-out plants and cold storages. The region's fishing grounds also have been polluted by debris from buildings and concrete pulled into the sea when the tsunami waves retreated.

While damage to big Japanese corporations like Sony and Honda is grabbing the headlines, the brunt of the destruction was borne by small coastal businesses, fishing fleets and seafood processors, says a powerful Wall Street Journal article called "Fishing Town Suffers, Caught in Waves' Wake" (www.onlinewsj.com). It's a shocker because it could be us.


Improving fish quality was the driving goal of Bristol Bay fishermen when they formed a Regional Seafood Development Association (RSDA) five years ago. Each year more than 1,800 driftnetters pay a 1 percent tax on their salmon catches to support the effort, which is yielding more than $1 million a year. The BBRSDA has put its money primarily into ice.

An annual survey of Bay processors by Northern Economics/Anchorage shows the percentage of chilled salmon deliveries nearly doubled from 2008 to 2010, from 24 percent to 47 percent. The better quality meant more Bristol Bay salmon were turned into frozen or fillet products instead of lower-valued cans. Last summer 33 percent went into the can compared with 46 percent in 2008.

Many Bristol Bay processors provide ice to their fleets, and ice barges and ice machines are placed strategically in the bay, said Bob Waldrop, BBRSDA director.

"We've seen a dramatic increase in the number of pounds of fish chilled by ice, from about 6 million in 2008 to 17 million pounds last year. That's nearly tripled," Waldrop said.

Overall, chilled fish made up 41 percent of the total Bristol Bay salmon catch, with unchilled fish at 59 percent. That's down from 64 percent in 2009. The driftnet fleet provided about 90 percent of the chilled fish.

Other findings: Fishermen had 155 tons of daily ice production by processors, 23 percent of total ice produced. That's almost twice last year's and an increase of 66 tons per day.

The amount of salmon processed outside Bristol Bay continues to decline, down from 16.8 percent in 2008, to 7.2 percent in 2009, to 2.1 percent in 2010. Find the complete survey results at www.bbrsda.com.


April 11 is the deadline to comment on aquaculture expansion policies being crafted by NOAA and the U.S. Department of Commerce. The agencies aim to have final policies completed this year. Comment at http://aquaculture.noaa.gov. Read the draft policies at www.nmfs.noaa.gov/aquaculture/policy2.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. Her information column appears every other Sunday. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting or placing on your website or newsletter, contact msfish@alaska.com.

Laine welch