Alaska rebrands the fish head: ASMI report promotes full utilization

State seafood marketers are rebranding fish parts as specialty products and mapping a path for millions more dollars in revenue.

Alaska fisheries produce more than 5 billion pounds of seafood each year. When all the fish is headed and gutted, filleted or clustered, it leaves about 3 billion pounds of trimmings. Some is turned into meal and oil. But for the most part, the gurry is ground up and discharged into local waterways.

A new report — Analyses of Alaska Seafood Specialty Products — compiled for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute takes a look at uses for fish heads, oil, meal, internal organs, crab products, roe, herring fillets, arrowtooth flounder, spiny dogfish and skates.

“Whether that’s heads or guts, milt, or meal or oil, or something else, it should be held in high regard,” said Andy Wink, an independent economic research consultant formerly with the McDowell Group, which produced the report. “These are products that are out of our normal range, but they are specialty items serving niche markets.”

It makes the point that Alaska’s combined seafood catches, valued at roughly $2 billion at the docks and twice that at wholesale, could be worth an additional $700 million or more if “specialty” products were added to the tally.

Take fish heads, for example. Alaska produces about 1 billion pounds of fish heads annually, which accounts for most of the processing waste. Just 1 percent is sold as frozen heads, although a single large salmon head can fetch up to $5 a pound at supermarkets in Beijing. Increasing the frozen market alone could add $100 million to processors’ sales, the report says.

Alaska processors produce more than 90,000 tons of fish oil, most of which is burned as a substitute for diesel, or is sold into lower value commodity markets. A study by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority showed that fish oil used as fuel rarely must be processed further and is 75 percent as efficient as #2 diesel. Fish oil used as fuel in Dutch Harbor offset 13.4 million gallons of diesel fuel in 2015 and saved operators $44 million.

But the payback for fish oils could be much higher. Producing more refined oils for human consumption could help Alaska cash in on the $1 billion supplement market, the ASMI report says, adding that the value of refined fish oil to Alaska could increase to well over $30 million each year.

Arrowtooth flounder numbers have exploded for several decades in the Gulf of Alaska; the fish blankets the bottom of the Gulf of Alaska and competes for food with dwindling halibut. But arrowtooth has little market value because its cooked flesh is mushy.

While it is considered a nuisance species, the fish has many unhailed pluses, said Wink. The 81 million pounds caught each year mostly as bycatch in trawl fisheries could provide more protein to the pet food, aquaculture and livestock feed markets. And the pesky flatfish has a pricy trim.

“There is this line of frill meat around the edge of the fish that is a very valuable sushi product called engawa. It can go for upwards of $10, even $20 per pound,” Wink adds.

Alaska fleets land nearly 70 million pounds of skates each year, but only about a third are frozen flat and stacked in 50-pound boxes for sale. The wings are prized by fish-and-chips makers in the U.K. and also in upscale French restaurants. Fishermen usually are paid about 30 cents a pound for skates by Alaska processors.

Crab shells have the potential to be one of Alaska’s most lucrative specialty products thanks to high demand in diverse industries. The exoskeleton of crabs contains chitin, one of the most abundant biodegradable materials in the world. Chitin has antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties, and is insoluble in water. Uses include blood clotting products, brewing refining agents, pool water clarifiers, food preservation, textile and fabric components, weight loss supplements and agricultural fungicide treatments. Prices for chitin and chitosan, a refined derivative, range from $10 to $3,000 per pound, depending on quality.

Alaska’s seafood catches produce 700 million pounds of internal organs, such as milt, livers, stomachs and enzymes. Salmon milt is being used as a substitute for silicon in computers and in LED lighting.

The ASMI report clearly lays out the challenges the state faces in fully tapping the specialty markets: industrial-scale production costs, additional labor, freezer/storage capacity, transportation, marketing – all compounded by remoteness and vast distances between fishing ports.

A suggested solution, Wink said, could be a cooperative approach.

“Co-ops could be a way to bring the raw material together, share the investment costs and hopefully bring down the break-even point on a lot of these things,” he said.

The project goal was to provide a one-stop, user-friendly reference with key takeaways on volumes/values, uses, markets, challenges and opportunities for Alaska’s seafood offerings. Wink likened it to trail blazing.

“Some of these barely have trails,” he said. “We want to widen the road so more Alaska specialty products can go out into the world.”

About the author

Laine Welch is an independent Kodiak, Alaska-based fisheries journalist. Click here to send her an email.

© Diversified Communications. All rights reserved.