SITKA, ALASKA According to 2010 data from the Department of Commerce, a fourth of Alaska’s exports go to Japan and half of that is in seafood.
While China overtook Japan as the largest consumer of Alaskan seafood last year, some markets like herring roe, which is made into an expensive Japanese new year delicacy known as kazunoko, are very limited.
“Herring roe to my mind may be the most specialized and most difficult to find alternative markets for, according to Gunnar Knapp, a professor of economics at University of Alaska-Anchorage.
Statewide this year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecasts 66,252 tonnes of herring available for commercial harvest. By the time the roe is processed into kazunoko, much of that tonnage is reduced. Even then, industry experts like Christina Burridge say as Japanese culture evolves, the supply of kazunoko far surpasses the demand for the product in Japan.
Burridge is the secretary and treasurer of the Pacific Kazunoko Association. She points to the 3000 tonnes of unsold roe still in cold storage in Japan and the country’s annual consumption of 6000 tonnes a year as examples of the trend she sees.
“If there was not an increase in consumption, there is a prospect that in 2012, there would be a 6000 ton carry over,” she said. “That is equivalent to the entire annual consumption in japan which is potentially an very serious market situation.”
Alaskan fishermen have already created a buffer for themselves against a possible market failure by participating in various fisheries. The crew aboard the Karin Britt for the Sitka Sound herring sac roe fishery is a good example.
Permit holder Chip Trienen fishes herring in the spring and gillnets for salmon in Bristol Bay during the summer.
Gus Glennville is the owner of the Karin Britt. He leased the boat to Treinen for this fishery and plans to take it north for salmon seining next month. He says that seining for him is almost like an addiction and chance is just something built into the fishery.
“[The price] goes up and down sometimes you do good, sometimes you don’t you can go fishing for a couple of months and get nothing or you can do really good,” he said with a laugh. “Usually, you just remember the good times.”
Trienen, the permit holder in Sitka, is also secretary and treasurer of the Herring Marketing Association –a group of 48 herring sac roe fishery permit holders. They’ve tried to get processors to offer a baseline price to the season for the last two years.
Trienen said that the association had discussed whether the Sitka Sound fleet would fish its entire quota. He, at least was of the mind that they would likely catch their entire quota and that processors should find new markets for herring roe.
“Its kind of like keeping our product on the market,” he said. “If it is cheap there will be some innovators who will try to figure out a new way to use the product and hopefully broaden our market.”
Burridge doubted there would be new markets at the scale that Japanese consumers demanded roe, even in declining years.
“I do not see obvious alternatives to the Japanese gift market–no alternative that pays on the scale that we’ve seen even in the last few years” she said.
Last year, kazunoko sold for $12 a pound in Japan.
Knapp thought that other Alaskan seafood markets heavily influenced by Japanese demand, such as black cod, sockeye salmon and Pollock and salmon roe, may fare better in the current market climate.
With herring roe though, Knapp says it is a matter of price.
“You can usually sell something, the question is at what price can you sell it for,” he said.
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