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Alaska fish processors chase Japanese market for an unusual product -- cod semen

Let's get one thing out of the way right now: This is a story about cod semen and the people who love to eat it.

Right now, fishing boats are pulling Pacific cod from the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. According to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council's guidelines, fishermen are allowed to catch up to 325,000 tons of cod this year.

A lot of that cod will become fish sticks or batter-fried filets.

But many processors in Alaska also remove the sperm sacs of male cod, a seafood product called cod milt. In Japan, a high-end market exists for cod milt, which goes by the unsettling literal name shirako, or "white children."

Virtually unknown in the U.S. outside certain bold Epicurean circles, the male counterpart to caviar is a delicacy in Japan, where it is tempura fried, dipped in ponzu sauce or served in hot pot soup dishes typically enjoyed in winter months, according to Akiko Yakata, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute's representative in Japan.

Though it routinely lands on "weirdest foods" lists outside the country, in Japan cod milt is prized for its mild, creamy flavor.

Like other culinary adventures such as a fugu, a fish that can be lethal if not prepared correctly, shirako isn't for everyone.

But the people who love it are passionate: An Instagram search for #shirako yields more than 1,000 glamour shots of cod semen, peeking out of seaweed cones or crowned with grated daikon.

For Alaska, cod milt's popularity abroad translates into good business.

Unisea, one of the largest seafood processors in the state, says it processed 359,000 pounds of cod milt last year at its Dutch Harbor plant.

During cod season, Copper River Seafoods, a processor with a plant in Anchorage, is sending "anywhere from 300-1,000 pounds per day of cod milt," according to chief business development officer Cassandra Squibb.

Japan has long been an important destination for Alaska seafood -- both the familiar and more unusual parts of the fish, said Alexa Tonkavich of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

It's difficult to quantify the dollar amount of the cod milt market in Japan, trade officials say.

But in 2013, Alaska sent some 168,081 tons of seafood to Japan, with an overall value of nearly $600 million, according to the ASMI. Exports more or less unique to Japan include cod stomachs, snow crab liver, herring roe, salmon skin and even salmon milt.

"There are many products where Japan is our primary if not only major market," Tonkavich said.

The Institute lists 28 Alaska suppliers of cod milt, though Yakata says she thinks that number might be high.

Tony Cadden, the president of Edmonds, Washington-based independent fish broker Tattoosh Seafoods, has been in the cod milt game for years.

It makes sense, he said: Why not get some value out of a part of the fish that might otherwise go to waste?

"We try to get as much utilization of the fish as we can," he said. "All the incidental products, they are important."

Cadden's company freezes milt at sea, in 40-pound blocks.

He says he can get about $1.20 per pound for the frozen cod milt.

"It's been a great, booming market for us," he said.

Fresh milt, which has a consistency that evokes custard, commands a higher price, but it is highly perishable. Getting it to Japan quickly presents logistical challenges.

Processors at Unisea grade the milt -- top grade is pure white in color and "firm but not hard in texture," according to production director Todd Shoup -- and then pack it in totes with ice gel, rushing it to the airport with the goal of making it to market in Japan in two days.

Hankering to try it yourself?

The bad news is that cod milt doesn't seem to be available as a pre-packaged item in Anchorage markets or on the menu at restaurants.

If you come across some, remember that Japan is far from the only place in the world where a fish's male reproductive organs are devoured. Russians eat herring semen, called moloka, on toast. Milt of tuna is a Sicilian delicacy.

Cadden, the Tattoosh Seafoods owner, prefers his cod milt pan-fried.

"It's delicate," he said. "It's like rainbow trout. The consistency is very fine."

Like many eaters of cod milt, he agrees it's better if you just don't think about it too much.

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