Optimism Grows for Strong Bristol Bay Sockeye, Wild Alaska Pollock Markets

(Left) Blackened wild Alaska pollock Cajun risotto. Photo courtesy of Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers. (Above Right) Sauteed wild Alaska pollock with Parmesan breadcrumbs. Photo courtesy of Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers.(Bottom right) Southwest spice blend fish tacos with wild Alaska pollock. Photo courtesy of Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers.

Markets are on the upswing, with potential for continuing growth, for Bristol Bay sockeye salmon and Alaska Pollock harvested in the Bering Sea. The two versatile, sustainable, protein packed wild-caught fish are popular with retail shoppers and diners from fast-food to fine dining restaurants.

Industry economists and marketers credit a combination of influences for the growth, ranging from the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic to increased consumer understanding of how both species can easily be prepared at home, for a variety of hot and cold, simple and elegant meals.

This is due to an ongoing educational campaign to bring more wild Alaska seafood to the center of the plate. At the same time, more people dining out as the pandemic wanes in some areas of the country are choosing these fish as menu options, from fast-food drive-throughs to white tablecloth restaurants.

None of this, of course, just happened out of the blue: it’s been through several years of collaborative effort between the likes of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers, retail supermarket chains, restaurants and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI).

Harvesters and processors have said they’re optimistic about the growing number of retail shoppers who have responded to an aggressive educational online and in-store campaign, complete with dozens of recipes on ways to prepare salmon and Alaska Pollock.

As consumers get more confident about preparing sockeye and other salmon and Alaska Pollock dishes at home by grilling or in a variety of contexts, such as fresh salads, they’re buying more and more fish in retail markets, industry watchers say.

“People will continue to buy fish and we should be optimistic about them buying fish at higher prices,” said fisheries economist Dan Lesh, a senior consultant at McKinley Capital in Anchorage. “The increase in farmed salmon prices helps us continue to support wild fish.”

“There is very strong competition from farmed fish,” he continued.  “The price for farmed Atlantic salmon is at a 20-year high. There is more farmed coho coming out of Chile than we have sockeye in Alaska and 10 times more farmed king salmon coming from New Zealand than there is king salmon in Alaska.”

The demand for salmon, buoyed by the sustainability of the fishery and the overall nutritional value and taste of the fish, drives sales, Lesh said.

The impact of the current U.S. imposed ban on Russian seafood is a bit more complex.

“Trade disputes with Russia will have some impact on markets, but it is commuted by the fact that both Russian and Alaska salmon are being reprocessed in China,” Lesh explained. “Typically, you can look at the area where the fish is caught to see if it is Russian or U.S., but when it is reprocessed in China it is not always clear which is the country of origin for the fish.”

“Demand is higher than ever,” said Lelani Dunn, marketing director for the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, which represents drift gillnetters in Bristol Bay. “We check all the boxes on what consumers are wanting. We are continuing to develop recipes and are working with chefs and chef influencers.”

Some of these recipes simply involve swapping out another protein, such as chicken, for seafood.

“They are choosing salmon because it is sustainable, they love the origin and they love the taste,” she said. “We don’t need to discount because demand is so strong. When retailers promote with us their sales increase about 35%,” she said.

And with the pandemic ongoing, she added, people are stocking their freezers with sockeyes.

The ASMI, a public-private partnership between the State of Alaska and the Alaska seafood industry, has a mission as a marketing organization to boost the economic value of the Alaska seafood resource in the U.S., Europe, Asia and elsewhere. For years, ASMI has posted recipes online for finfish, groundfish, shellfish and more.

From January through early March of 2022, ASMI introduced its Alaska Seafood Hacks Campaign Toolkit, partnering with well-known chefs and culinary influencers to spread the word about tips for cooking wild Alaska seafood.

That campaign came on the heels of ASMI’s Cook It Frozen promotion, with recipes on how to pop fillets of fish and more out of the freezer and into the oven for quick meals. ASMI also promotes the seafood swap, with recipes for wild Alaska Pollock Reubens and bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches using Pacific cod.

At the offices of Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers, executive director Craig Morris was equally enthused. “We are just coming out of Earth Month (in March),” Morris said in an interview in early May. The upscale Nordstrom department stores were featuring blackened Alaska Pollock as fillets and salads, and heading into May Alaska Pollock was being featured in tacos, “not just in fast food, but in upscale restaurants looking for a versatile protein.”

The versatile, protein-packed white fish takes on the flavor of the recipe that the chef has created, he said.

“We are also seeing a lot of growth right now in surimi, which is versatile, at a good price point and has a mild flavor,” he said.  Surimi, which is finely minced wild Alaska Pollock blended with other ingredients such as starch, salt, crab meat and egg white, is commonly used in popular dishes like California sushi rolls and crab salad. A great source of protein and low in calories, surimi may be flavored, shaped and colored to resemble all kinds of meats, and is often referred to as imitation crab, but it is neither fake nor artificial, as it is made from real Alaska Pollock.

Surimi was created back in the 12th century by Japanese chefs who would grind and salt leftover fish as a means of preserving their extra catch. In the 1960s, a Japanese chemist found that by adding sugar to the traditional surimi-making process, he could stabilize the surimi, freeze it and preserve its shelf life, a discovery that launched what is today a $1-billion global industry.

Researchers with NOAA Fisheries meanwhile have stepped up their research to find ways to predict potential marine heatwaves, to give fisheries managers more flexibility in planning for areas where the heatwaves are likely to occur. They include Bristol Bay’s famed sockeye salmon runs and finfish, groundfish and crab from Bering Sea fisheries.

The good news so far, said Michael G. Jacox, a research oceanographer at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, is that at least for the coming months in the Eastern Bering Sea, the likelihood of such marine heatwaves is not in the forecast. Nor have researchers tracking these heatwaves indicated the probability of one impacting the robust sockeye run into Bristol Bay in the summer of 2022.

Marine heatwaves, periods of exceptionally warm ocean temperature lasting weeks to years, are widely recognized for their capacity to disrupt marine ecosystems, causing relatively sudden demises in anticipated valuable harvests, such as Pacific cod in the Gulf of Alaska.

The substantial ecological and socioeconomic impacts of such extreme events present major challenges to marine resource managers, who have to be proactive in conservation efforts to protect stocks.

In 2014, a large marine heatwave was identified as it began dominating the northeast Pacific Ocean. Eventually it gained notoriety as “the Blob,” complete with unprecedented harmful algal blooms, shifting distributions of marine life and changes in the marine food web.

Large marine heatwaves have occurred each of the last three years (2019-2021). All typically began during the spring in the far offshore region of the open North Pacific, impacting the U.S. West Coast during the fall and finally terminating during late winter. These heatwaves were the third, second and seventh largest heatwaves, respectively, on record for the eastern North Pacific since monitoring began in 1982.

ASMI’s 2022 report on the economic value of Alaska’s seafood industry notes that in 2019, there were over 62,200 people directly employed in Alaska’s seafood industry, earning $1.75 billion in total labor income. The seafood industry overall contributed $5.7 billion in economic output to the state economy in 2019 and the harvest was sold in 100 countries worldwide.

For Bristol Bay, that added up to 15,900 workers and 5,200 total full-time equivalent jobs, plus $322 million in labor income. In the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands it meant posts for 14,400 workers —10,900 total full-time equivalent jobs — and $826 million in labor income, according to the ASMI report.