SeafoodSource OpEd: AK seafood industry must improve its leadership position with better products

Expert says poor quality AK seafood products, especially at retail, "hurts the entire industry's image."

by | June 25, 2024

Filed Under Markets | Processors | Trade | Trends

Blames poor quality products by AK producers, “especially of late” – credits ASMI’s marketing/promotions

Joseph Sabbagh, the president of Sax Maritime Associates

Joseph Sabbagh, president of Sax Maritime Associates | Courtesy of Joseph Sabbagh

Joseph Sabbagh is the president of Calabasas, California, U.S.A.-based Sax Maritime Associates, which has been offering consulting services to those invested or considering investing in the seafood industry since 1985. He offered this unique perspective on Alaska seafood to SeafoodSource

I view the Alaska seafood industry as a microcosm of the entire seafood industry in the U.S. However, it has a major advantage with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). I cannot think of any seafood marketing organization that has done a better job at creating and promoting a seafood brand in the U.S. than ASMI. It has embedded Alaskan seafood as a favorite seafood choice in the minds of American consumers. It has the budget to do that, and unlike too many other industry or state marketing groups, it has spent that money wisely for the most part. Yet, despite its best efforts, being a favorite choice in the minds of consumers has not been enough to open their wallets over the last few years. 

During the pandemic, U.S. consumers bought a lot more seafood at retail. Retail seafood sales data for 2023 indicates they were not that impressed. There are a few problems primarily responsible for the stagnant per-capita consumption, but there are only two problems facing Alaska’s seafood industry; the first is the only difficult one to overcome.

1. Quality issues

It’s not the majority, but there are enough poor-quality products – especially in the retail trade of Alaska seafood products – that hurts the entire industry’s image. This includes value-added seafood that is oversalted and breaded – even plain raw seafood that is over-“enhanced” – to put it nicely – or not processed properly. I have had more than one difficult conversation with my clients in the Gulf of Mexico about their shrimp. Alaska’s finfish has its share of quality issues, especially of late. Sockeye, coho, cod, and pollock items are too often not up to the standard they should be. 

2. Marketing to themselves

Companies paying trade associations and data companies and sponsoring events where those providing the service continue to tell them what they want to hear must be stopped. Alaska has its own version of that with its annual Symphony of Salmon contest. A look at the sales history of the “winners” will find very few were ever successful at a retail or foodservice level. Perhaps it is a team-building event, and the participants are happy with that. Alaskan salmon has had a great run. From my view, a growing number of U.S. consumers are not willing to pay the higher price for wild salmon when farmed is at lower prices in both fresh and frozen. In 2013, Costco did a taste test on farmed versus wild salmon, with farmed coming out on top according to the panelists. This is the only U.S. study I could find. New studies like this must be done. As an industry, we must focus on consumer trends and not our wish list.

Alaska’s seafood sector has significant fishing, processing, and competitive challenges well outside its control. There are no easy answers. The first step is for the industry to admit the problems and make changes to those it can control. I have no doubt most will do so. I think the failure rate will escalate, though I hope I am wrong about that. My experience is in providing consumer- and marketing-based services to retail and foodservice operators as well as other groups interested in or involved in seafood.

Below are general suggestions for the U.S. market.

1. Improve Alaska frozen products and programs

  • Address the glitch in scan date with retail customers that does not differentiate between thawed and fresh product sold out of the “fresh” case, resulting in both listed as fresh.
  • Bring back the “Sell it Frozen” promotion in a big way.
  • Offer more healthy full-meal solutions.
  • Develop more buffet trays.

2. Expand ambient seafood offerings

  • Create new canned and pouched brands in the high-end and value-end of the market.
  • Offer more healthy full meals, soups, and chowders in pouches.

3.  Finfish processing improvement

  • At this point, Alaska does not need more money spent on marketing. Investment is needed in new processing and culling of finfish.
  • Revisit all the costs of building state-of-the-art processing vessels or barges to increase once-frozen versus overseas twice-frozen fish.

I believe the key to improving the state of Alaska’s seafood industry depends on their producers’ willingness to adapt to the new seafood consumer. The industry cannot control macroeconomics, political upheaval, or their competitors. However, it can control how much and what it puts in the box or bag. Those who do will prosper.

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About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.

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