Alaska chum salmon robust on stronger flesh market, Japanese stock declines

Alaska chum salmon has settled into a robust niche as processors make inroads on flesh markets and Japanese chum stocks continue to bottom out. 

In 2017, Alaska chums totaled a first wholesale value of USD 340 million (EUR 297 million), a sizable chunk of the total of USD 1.89 billion (EUR 950.5 million) for all salmon caught in the state of Alaska last year. For comparison, the state’s most lucrative species, sockeye salmon, had a first wholesale value of over USD 750 million (EUR 655 million), while pink salmon came in around USD 600 million (EUR 524 million). 

Of that 2017 total for chums, just USD 128 million (EUR 112 million) of that went to roe, including ikura and sujiko roe, while USD 191 million (EUR 167 million) went to the flesh market. The remaining USD 21 million (EUR 18 million) went to cans, smoked fish, and bait. That adds up to a majority of all Alaska chum production going to the flesh market, a big change since the 1990s, when chum was primarily harvested for its roe.

Even as recently as a decade ago, figures provided by Alaska Department of Fish and Game showed roe accounting for well over 50 percent of the total wholesale value. But that is changing.

“Clearly the data shows that chum is a valued species, a valued contributor to total Alaska salmon production, and the roe component, at this point, is about a third of that,” said Garrett Everidge, a fisheries economist for the McDowell Group.

Jeremy Woodrow, the communications director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), said marketing has been a part of this shift. 

In the early 2000s, the FDA approved a nomenclature change and allowed chum – a word often associated with bait fish, especially in the Eastern United States – to be marketed as keta (pronounced key-tah), the scientific name for the fish. 

“ASMI has taken the charge for calling it keta, and since then it’s been pretty well accepted in the U.S. marketplace and is also performing well internationally,” Woodrow said.

Woodrow said before keta, there were attempts to market the fish as silverbrite.

These name changes haven't been accepted by all players in the market. Pacific Seafoods claims on its website that the name keta only serves to confuse consumers more about an already enigmatic fish with broad variance in flesh quality. 

One of the major marketing issues with chum salmon is that the flesh is often paler than the other major salmon species like sockeye, king, or coho. Its oil content tends to be lower too, which means chum does not always bake or broil well, but it does lend itself to grilling, searing, or poaching.

There are, however, anomalies. The Yukon River chums, for example, travel more than 1,000 miles to spawn and have bright red flesh and high oil content that is on par with Alaska’s prized king salmon. They are targeted by trollers as a premium product and reputed to be some of the best flesh fish in the sea.

“But mostly keta is a high-volume fishery and since it's collected for its roe as well, it usually goes to China to be pin-boned, filleted and portioned, and then sent back to the U.S. to these large retailers,” Woodrow said.

Keta or chum, the resilient fish is carving out a place for itself amongst the higher-profile species, and has maintained good prices at the dock for past the few seasons, often commanding around USD 1 (EUR 0.87) per pound, at times more than high-value species like sockeye.

And Everidge said the flesh market has gained traction despite the fact that the fishery is still set up to target roe.

“In terms of the actual quality of the fish, because there has always been such a focus on the roe, they’re harvested at a suboptimal time for the flesh. If you harvest that chum a month-and-a-half earlier, when it’s ocean run, bright and strong, that’s a beautiful fish,” Everidge said.

Nonetheless, keta-branded frozen fillets, mostly processed in China, are now in major outlets like Target, Publix, and Sam’s Choice, and Woodrow thinks this will persist despite the tariffs. Last year alone, Alaska sent USD 93.5 million (EUR 81.6 million) in chum to China. That marks a 60 percent increase by volume and a 95 percent increase by value from 2016 to 2017, according to figures cited by Woodrow. 

Declines in Japanese Hokkaido Island chums have been a shot in the arm for Alaska as well. Formerly the world’s largest chum run, Hokkaido had its smallest harvest in decades in 2017, which prompted a 171 percent value increase in Alaska exports to Japan.   

“If you go back to the early 2000s, Japan was producing way more chum than the U.S. or anyone else, and even just a few years ago Japan was the world’s biggest chum producer, but now they’ve fallen off. We’re seeing the aftermath of the tsunami, which took out a bunch of their production capacity,” Everidge said.

Conventional wisdom says Alaska’s intercept of Japanese demand has kept the chum roe market alive. 

“There’s been a kind of Westernization of the Japanese diet, which has contributed to reducing Japanese demand for roe across the board, including chum roe. However, anecdotally, in 2018 chum roe prices have been very strong,” Everidge added.

That means that if the Hokkaido runs recover and Japan can again supply its roe domestically, chum may need to skew even further toward the flesh market, which it seems poised to do.

Photo courtesy of Seafood Producers Cooperative


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