China may soon become an even bigger customer for Alaska salmon, and not just the bright red fillets.
Since 2011 when it zoomed past Japan, China has purchased more Alaska seafood than any nation, with purchases nearing $800 million — some 54 percent of all Alaska exports are sent to China.
In Chinese culture, fish symbolize abundance and prosperity. A growing middle class now earns the equivalent of about $25,000 in U.S. dollars annually, giving buyers disposable income to spend on such high-end food as salmon. Add in increasing public concerns about food safety and pollution, and it means Alaska is poised to send even more salmon to China.
A photo-filled Alaska Sea Grant report — called Consumer Preference and Market Potential for Alaska Salmon in China — gives a glimpse of that potential in a country with 1.4 billion people. Researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Purdue University spent more than three months surveying some 1,000 urban supermarket shoppers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Here's a sample of what they found:
*While nearly 40 percent of Chinese consumers said they eat seafood at least once a week, only about 9 percent eat salmon that often, and 7 percent have never eaten salmon. Carp is the most popular fish consumed in China.
*More than 66 percent consider seafood to be healthier than other foods, and more than 25 percent prefer wild-caught seafood. Nearly the same number did not understand the difference between wild and farmed fish or consider it unimportant.
*Almost 40 percent of Chinese consumers said they eat salmon in restaurants and prefer it raw, as sashimi or sushi. Nearly 18 percent eat salmon in the same uncooked ways at home.
*More than 68 percent said they would be more likely to buy Alaska salmon knowing it comes from a clean environment and is sustainably harvested.
*Nearly 59 percent of Chinese urbanites said they might buy Alaska salmon if available at an acceptable price. They also find parts of the fish that most Americans toss in the trash appealing.
Chinese culinary traditions include cooking fish heads, tails, and bones for various soups and stews. Supermarket prices showed salmon heads selling for $4.99 per pound, salmon skins at $2.46, and salmon bones at $5.10 per pound.
The report said those low-value parts can add significant value to Alaska seafood exports to China.
"Consumers, if presented with more opportunities to purchase Alaska salmon, would favor the wild fish because of its health benefits, pristine source waters and sustainability," said Quijie "Angie" Zheng, a study co-author along with H. Holly Wang, Quentin Fong, and Yonggang Lu, all professors within Alaska's university system.
The salmon potential has not been lost on Norway, the world's top producer of farmed fish. The national fish news website seafood.com reports that Norway plans to export 343 million pounds of farmed salmon to China by 2025, worth about 4.4 billion yuan, or $646 million.
Hefty salmon harvests
Alaska is the second largest salmon harvester in the North Pacific, topped only by Russia, and it leads all other nations in releases of hatchery-reared fish.
That's according to the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, which revealed last month that salmon catches reported by member countries — Canada, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the U.S. — remain at all-time highs.
Since 1993, the commission has tracked the abundance and origins of chum, silver, pink, red, king, and cherry salmon — as well as steelhead trout — in the North Pacific, Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk.
Salmon abundance is based on aggregate commercial catches of the five nations, which in 2016 totaled nearly 440 million fish, just slightly below previous years.
Russia ranked No. 1 for total salmon catches with 967 million pounds. U.S. fleets took 617 million pounds – with all but 19 million pounds of the U.S. catch coming from Alaska.
Next came Japan at 245 million pounds, and Canada at 47 million.
Pink salmon made up 41 percent of the total catch by weight, with Russia hauling in 75 percent of the pink pack. That was followed by chums at 33 percent, reds at 21 percent, and silvers at 3 percent. King salmon made up just 1 percent of the North Pacific catch.
Hatchery releases of salmon from member countries topped 5 billion fish in 2016 (38 percent of the total salmon catch), similar to numbers over the last three decades.
The U.S. released 37 percent of the hatchery fish, followed by Japan at 37 percent, Russia at 19 percent and Canada at 6 percent.
Sixty-five percent of the hatchery releases were chum salmon, followed by pinks at 24 percent. Chinook, sockeye and coho salmon releases were 5 percent or less.
Alaska salmon fishermen can get rebates on pingers aimed at keeping marine mammals away from their gear. The 6-inch, battery-operated tubes are tied into fishing nets and transmit animal-specific signals every five seconds.
"Pingers can be really helpful to alert the whales to something in front of them, so you have less entanglements," explained Kathy Hansen, director of the Southeast Alaska Fisheries Alliance.
The alliance received a $25,000 Hollings Grant from the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation to fund the pinger program, which pays out $25 rebates for up to five pingers per permit per vessel.
Pingers retail for about $100 each, which adds up by the time you put the number needed for the length of a salmon net.
"A Southeast gillnet that is 200 fathoms long needs at least five," Hansen said.
The rebates are good for any Alaska salmon fishery.
Hansen uses pingers in her salmon gear and swears by them.
"It's not 100 percent effective — kind of like a red stop light. Ninety nine percent of the people will stop, and there's that one percent that might not. But we've used them on our fishing gear for about six years and are completely sold on them," she said.
And, she added, pingers don't act like a dinner bell for whales, nor affect the salmon catch.
"In our personal experience and all the people we've talked to say they have not seen any kind of dinner bell effect with the pingers," Hansen said. "And they do not scare the fish away. We constantly see fish clumped up next to the pingers."
Rebate forms are on the alliance website and at local gear shops.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at email@example.com.