Pollock Protein Noodles. Southern Style Alaska Wild Wings. Candied salmon ice cream. Fish oils for pets. Fish and chips meal kits. Fin Fish earrings. These are just a small sample of past winners of Alaska’s biggest seafood competition — the Alaska Symphony of Seafood — which has showcased and promoted new, market-ready products since 1993.
The annual event levels the playing field among Alaska’s largest seafood companies and the smallest “mom and pops” whose products are all judged blind by an expert panel.
Eighteen entries are in the running for the 2021 contest, the first leg of which takes place next month at Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle. They will compete in several categories: retail and food service, salmon and whitefish, Beyond the Plate, and new to the lineup is a Bristol Bay Choice awarded to the best new sockeye product.
Products made from Alaska seaweeds also are making their way into the annual lineup, said Riley Smith, deputy director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, which hosts the Symphony.
“We have Alaska Barbecue Sauce from Barnacle Foods of Juneau with kelp in it. They won the grand prize two years ago for their Bullwhip Kelp Hot Sauce. Premium Aquatics and Seagrove Kelp also entered their ribbon kelp,” Smith said.
The Beyond the Plate category features both edible and non-edible marine products, and attracted five entries: AlaSkin Dog Treats, two gourmet salts from Prince William Sound Salt Co., salmon oils and Deep Blue Sea Bath Soak by Waterbody of Wrangell.
The judging takes place on Nov. 17, and seafood fans can experience them all at a bash at Seattle’s Bell Harbor Conference Center that evening.
The first-place winners and a Seattle People’s Choice award will be announced at Pacific Marine Expo’s center stage on Nov. 19.
The grand-prize winner and second- and third-place awards are kept under wraps until the Symphony moves to Juneau in February. Following that, top winners get a free trip and booth space at the big Seafood Expo North America in Boston in March where their products will compete nationally.
“That’s a really big deal,” said Keith Singleton, president of the value-added division of Alaskan Leader Seafoods, which won a grand prize for its Alaska Cod with Lemon Herb Butter and a first place for its Cod Crunchies pet treats.
“The exposure we got from the Symphony, we used that in all of our marketing. We’re fishermen and for us as a company that’s pretty new at this it was pretty impressive that we won. And we definitely have picked up a lot of new accounts,” Singleton added. “Anybody who wants to compete in the Symphony, I strongly encourage them. It’s a lot of fun and it really gets your name out there. It’s really helped us for sure.”
Ultimately, the annual new products competition is aimed at increasing the value of Alaska’s fishery resources to fishermen and communities.
“It starts at the boat,” said Julie Decker, AFDF executive director. “The quality that fishermen are producing has gone up tremendously over the past 25 years, and it is directly related to the quality you can manufacture into new products. When they do better, everybody does better.”
NO END TO TRADE
Ongoing tariffs and trade imbalances continue to take big bites out of seafood revenues with no end in sight.
An investigation by Undercurrent News reveals that the trade war with China that began three years ago by former president Donald Trump over concerns about intellectual property theft has cost the U.S. nearly $704 million in seafood import tariffs between September 2018 and August 2021, and no relief is forthcoming yet from the Biden Administration.
In terms of products going to China, seafood is Alaska’s top export by far and prior to the tariff tangle China was the largest purchaser at 54% valued at $1.3 billion.
That value has since dropped by nearly half a billion dollars, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). At the same time, tariffs on Alaska seafood exported to China have reached 37%-42%.
At the same time, the trade imbalance between the U.S. and Russia is heading into its eighth year.
Russia stopped purchasing any foods from the U.S. over criticism of its illegal land-grab of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Since then, not a single pound of seafood has gone to Russia while imports to the U.S. from that country have increased by 173%.
“Russia has open access to our markets with no restrictions. I just don’t understand the fairness of this,” Mark Palmer, president and CEO of OBI Seafoods said in a webinar. “We will compete against anyone, but if they’re not going to give us access to their market they shouldn’t have unfettered access to ours.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, called the issue “ridiculous” at Kodiak’s ComFish in April, adding that “meanwhile, most of their fish comes in almost duty free, and they’re taking market share from our fishermen in America.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, added: “This is one thing that I think we all agree we have got to have addressed. It has been going on for far, far too long and quite honestly, it’s untenable.”
Yet the surge of Russian seafood into the U.S. continues.
So far this year the U.S. has purchased over 19 million pounds of Russian red king crab valued at over $378 million; nearly 26 million pounds of snow crab valued at over $294 million, and more than eight million pounds of cod for $21.5 million, among other items.
CATCH SHARE CRUNCH
Quota shares of Alaska halibut are in high demand, but good luck finding any.
Dock prices that have remained in the mid-$6 and $7 per pound range and even topped $8 have kept a lid on any quota sales at the major fishing regions of Southeast, the Central Gulf and Western Gulf.
“It is incredibly tight. There is virtually no 3A (Central Gulf) on the market right now,” said Maddie Lightsey at Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer. “Recent sales for mid-size, Charlie class blocks were maybe $42 a pound but good luck finding one. You could have $44 a pound ready to go and good luck. It’s a really, really tight market right now.”
Some encouraging signs from the annual summer survey also are fueling interest in halibut shares, Lightsey added.
“What I’m hearing most often is that at 3A, which got a huge 27% increase last year, fishing has been really scratchy. Despite good weather and high dock prices, they’re just not doing as well as past years,” she said. “Whereas in 3B (Western Gulf), which is typically a harder place to fish, folks are doing really well and the fish have been plentiful. There’s a lot of optimism that might be reflected in next year’s catch.”
The biggest demand for halibut shares is by the halibut charter sector, which Lightsey called “insatiable.”
“Central Gulf six angler permits have been selling for $110,000, which I believe is quite a bit higher than ever before,” she said. “I think a lot of people had really good seasons — tourism was back and there are people with cash in hand ready to quite literally buy any 3A charter permit they can get their hands on. And the same goes for Southeast.”
Shares of sablefish (black cod) also are getting more interest, due in part to the increasing use of safer, lightweight, inexpensive collapsible “slinky” pots. More fishermen have switched to the pots that prevent whales from stripping the pricey sablefish from their traditional hook and line gear.
“What I’m hearing most is that there are a lot of fish, and the pots are making a world of difference,” Lightsey said. “There’s a lot of optimism throughout the fleet. And we’re seeing that play out in folks buying in who weren’t previously ready to, and folks who are now willing to head farther out west than they previously were.”
Fishing for both sablefish and halibut runs through Dec. 7.