A month after the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Alaska’s largest trading partner and one of the state’s biggest purchasers of seafood, industry experts are still trying to weigh the effects the disaster in Japan will have on overall demand and prices for fish products.

Forum speakers on the opening day of ComFish, Kodiak’s commercial fishing trade show, addressed the latest seafood trends in the world, including how unfolding events in Japan will affect several fisheries here, for good or ill.

Presenting at the forum was John Sackton, editor of seafood.com, the most visited seafood site in North America. In his 33 years in the seafood industry, Sackton has worked as a non-binding arbitrator and market analyst for the Alaska king and opilio crab fisheries, among many other activities.

“The Japanese market is being influenced by cautious seafood buyers and a reduction in demand,” Sackton said.

For example, Sackton said, the chairman of Japanese seafood buyer Maruha Nichiro recently indicated that he expects the period from June to September will be a difficult time for seafood sales.

“That’s a pretty authoritative source for someone to be worried about that,” Sackton said.

While Sackton thinks Japanese companies and buyers initially attempted to conduct business as usual after the disaster, Japanese consumers have not had the heart to keep pace.

Sackton listed several challenges Japanese consumers face. These include the rolling blackouts in Tokyo and elsewhere, the depressing news of radiation, and shock over the tragedy .

“People just don’t want to be in a very celebratory mood,” Sackton said “They want this period of restraint.”

The Japanese currency compounds the problem. The weakening yen along with buyer caution will cause consumers to pull back their spending on seafood, Sackton said.

“The basic thing is that if the Japanese buyers are concerned about their consumers and they’re not sure how their customers are going to react. They don’t stop buying … but they buy less. They become real cautious.”

This restraint will have different effects on different fisheries in Alaska.

One fishery Sackton predicted would experience falling prices in opilio crab.

“The thing that has been propping up the opilio market has been this Japanese demand,” he said. “They start backing off, the whole tenor of that crab market is going to change.”

With the destruction of the city of Sendai, where surimi was processed, surimi prices are going to trend down as well, Sackton said.

While there will probably be a good market for high quality pollock roe, the Japanese have indicated they have a lot of inventory of herring and lower-quality pollock roe even before these fisheries open.

However, there may be higher demand for salmon due to much of the stored Chilean coho salmon going to waste in freezers. Japan lost around 12 metric tons at least, Sackton said, and local production of salmon in Japan could be affected.

“There is so much destruction in these fishing communities in Hokkaido, it’s not clear to me they will be able to catch the salmon at the same level they normally do in the fall,” Sackton said. “So there is a chance some supply things may keep the Japanese strong on salmon.”

Prices for many different sectors of Alaska seafood have been reaching historical highs the past few years.

“I’m not predicting any kind of doom and gloom,” Sackton said. “I think things are still going to be very good. They’re just not going to be priced at the same levels that we’ve seen in the last two years.”

Mirror writer Wes Hanna can be reached via email at whanna@kodiakdailymirror.com.

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