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Hometown U: Fishing for salmon consumers in China

Right about now, Alaskans are digging through the spidery corners of their backyard sheds and garages, pulling out waders and tackle boxes, sweeping leaves off gunnels and hooking up boat trailers.

It's time to get ready for summer and salmon fishing.

Pardon me for this, but Qiujie "Angie" Zheng has bigger fish to fry. She'll be setting her hooks in China this summer… for Alaska salmon consumers.

This UAA economics professor was born in the Chinese coastal city of Tianjin. She came to the United States for a master's degree in statistics and a doctorate degree in economics, and worked a number of years for JP Morgan Chase in Columbus, Ohio. Her husband's work brought her to Alaska, where she's been busy teaching courses like statistics and econometrics for about three years.

Zheng grew up eating seafood, though not salmon. Since arriving in Alaska, she's fallen in love with the fresh, natural high quality of the state's premier fish. On a fishing trip with friends last summer, she marveled as they filleted their catch, tossing away fish heads, tails and bones. Where she comes from, soup made from fish heads is considered a wonderful and healthy meal. She scooped up her fishing buddies' discards to take home for her own kitchen.

Zheng has also hosted a number of guests from China, including her parents, who marveled at the rich taste of Alaska salmon. She and her guests concurred that Alaska's version far surpasses the flavor of salmon they are able to get in China, which is mostly farmed from Norway and pricey.

Now, it is true that Alaska already exports some salmon to China. According to Zheng's research, China first topped Alaska's export list in 2011; 58 percent of those exports were in pink, chum and sockeye salmon, valued at $843.1 million.

Some Alaska salmon travels to China for repackaging and export to other markets; some stays in China for consumption there. Zheng wants to know if that market can be expanded, especially featuring wild Alaska salmon from environmentally sound and sustainable northern fisheries.

China's own environmental challenges, plus a number of food safety scandals in recent years, may make Alaska's environmental reputation a powerful motivator for consumers.

Zheng got to thinking about these two worlds -- developing China with its fast-growing middle class and new purchasing power, and pristine Alaska with its fabulous seafood and untainted environment. Once the wheels started turning, she was off on one of her favorite personal and professional occupations: Strategizing. As she put it -- a giant smile breaking her serious academic demeanor -- "I like to come up with strategies! But in order to get strategies, you need to do research and use the scientific method to answer your questions."

Which is precisely what Zheng will be doing this summer on a trip to China. Late last year, she applied and won $25,000 in research seed money, an Innovate Award funded through the University of Alaska Anchorage's Office of Graduate and Research Studies. The goal is to establish sufficient preliminary findings to support a larger award, potentially from the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the National Science Foundation.

On this trip, she won't be bringing any tasty Alaska salmon with her. Instead, she's designing a survey to tease out Chinese consumer preferences. She'll take the survey to supermarkets in three large Chinese cities, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, where consumers have enough buying power to consider purchasing imported seafood.

With the help of Chinese graduate students, she plans to survey 150 consumers in each city, for a sample size of 450. Besides gathering demographic, economic and education data on her subjects, she hopes to learn their salmon preferences. Her survey will bundle salmon attributes in clusters and invite consumers to rate them.

Her survey will also test Chinese consumers' interest in fish parts beyond fillets -- heads, tails and bones -- coming from Alaska. "Another hypothesis I have is that the 'Harvested in Alaska' mark will have special meaning to Chinese consumers," Zheng said.

She has two partners on this project, Holly Wang from Purdue University (her mentor and advisor during her graduate studies) and Yonggang Lu of UAA, for his data analysis skills. Wang, who has done extensive field research in China, can offer broad connections with Chinese scholars and institutions. "We want to get the very best Chinese graduate students we can get," Zheng said, "and she is how we will get them."

Once she has results, she plans to reach out to Alaska's supply side fishing organizations and share her findings, and ideally earn another grant to continue the work.

"The world is big, but it is also very small," Zheng said. "If we can link China and Alaska in an effective way, it will benefit both. We may have the opportunity to conduct even more business in China."

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.