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In Alaska visit, Commerce secretary cites importance of export assistance to fishermen

Sean Doogan
Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, speaking in Anchorage on Thursday, Aug. 21, said she hopes to open an export assistance office in the state to provide resources for Alaskans in export-reliant industries. Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News

While many Alaskans might not have heard of her, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker leads a federal agency that has deep roots in the Last Frontier. In addition to working to improve export and commerce among states, Pritzker's agency is in also charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service. 

"I have a lot to learn about what's happening in Alaska, and Alaska is obviously a unique part of the U.S., so now's a good time to be here," Pritzker said Thursday in Anchorage. Pritzker is in Alaska on her first-ever trip to the 49th state.

Pritzker's Alaska trip comes as the state's seafood exporters are scrambling to find new markets to fill in the hole left when Russia banned all U.S. seafood imports -- a consequence of U.S. economic sanctions on that country because of its involvement in the unrest in Ukraine.

According to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, the state's seafood businesses annually export about $60.4 million worth of seafood to Russia. Another $68.4 million worth of seafood is sent to Ukraine each year, with a lot of that also ending up in Russia. The biggest impact the current Russian import ban has had on Alaska is in the salmon roe industry, which grew by 222 percent in 2013, according to Alexa Tonkovich, AMSI's international program director.

"It’s a little bit stressful because people already had made sale or had product on way to Russia," Tonkovich said.

Tonkovich said only Japan imports more salmon roe -- cured pink or chum salmon eggs, popular during the holidays in many Asian and Eastern European countries -- than Russia. Tonkovich said AMSI's marketing board has been looking for other markets for Alaska salmon roe to avoid problems caused by instability in the U.S.-Russian relationship.

Pritzker said one of her biggest priorities for the state is to put an Office of Export Assistance in Alaska -- in part, she said, to help the more than 600 local companies that export goods internationally.

"That's one of the reasons we want to get our U.S. export assistance director on the ground as soon as possible," Pritzker said. "We have to help those fishermen find alternative markets for their goods."

Pritzker traveled to Nome Friday and said she and her husband would be taking a few personal days to see more of the state before returning to Washington, D.C.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com.