New report cites huge untapped potential for Alaska salmon in China

Published on
June 19, 2017

A new report published by Alaska Sea Grant says China’s growing middle class represents a large potential for growth in sales of wild Alaska salmon fillets that could include a head-and-bone market. 

Researchers from the University of Alaska partnered with colleagues from the University of Purdue to carry out the study, which surveyed more than 1,000 shoppers at grocery stores in three major cities in China – already Alaska’s top export market.

The report — co-authored by Qiujie “Angie” Zheng, an assistant professor of economics and public policy at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, and Quentin Fong, a seafood marketing specialist and professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks – found that 59 percent of Chinese consumers said they definitely or probably would buy Alaska salmon at a reasonable price. In addition, around 68 percent of the shoppers said they were very likely to buy Alaska salmon after learning it was wild caught in a pristine environment.

Zheng got the idea for the study from a simple contradiction. She knew that the Chinese liked quality salmon and that China was a huge importer of Alaska seafood – China imported USD 784 million (EUR ) in 2014, with salmon accounting for USD 290 million (EUR 259 million). But she never saw for it sale in her home country. 

“I grew up in China, and for all the supermarkets and wet markets I have been to in China, I have never seen Alaska salmon in any of these markets,” Zheng, who now lives in Anchorage, said. “But every time my family and friends visit me, they comment on the great taste and high quality of Alaska salmon and they wish they could buy it in Chinese markets.”

Although exact data is hard to come by, the group’s research indicates most  Alaskan salmon is being reprocessed and in turn exported to Europe. Alaska salmon has been introduced wealthier consumers in high-end hotels and restaurants, but the grocery store market remains dominated by Norwegian farmed salmon. But China’s new middle class, with its extra income and concerns about food safety and pollution, seems ready for Alaska salmon fillets, and could open new markets for heads and bones, an attractive proposition to an industry looking to cut down on the current estimates that 50 percent of the total biomass of Alaska’s salmon catch goes to waste.

“American and Chinese consume salmon parts differently. The seemingly low-value or no-value parts like heads and bones actually may carry significant value in the Chinese market because of our culinary tradition,” Zheng said. 

In China, salmon heads are used for soup, a dish that is “not inexpensive” in restaurants, according to Zheng. She said she recently paid the equivalent of USD 11 (EUR 9.85) for a bowl of soup prepared with a farmed salmon head. Farmed salmon heads were fetching around USD 3 (EUR 2.67) per pound in Chinese supermarkets, while bones are fried or grilled and served as an appetizer or side dish.

The report said that an Alaska salmon marketing campaign would have to contend with the Chinese tradition of buying live fish out tanks at local wet markets, which accounts for 64 percent of fish purchases, with chilled fish at 22 percent and frozen fish at just 13 percent.  

However, Alaska does have the advantage of being located relatively close to China, which aids in the preservation of freshness, as China and Alaska are now connected by just a six-hour direct flight from their closest shipping points.  

Contributing Editor reporting from Seattle, USA

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