At a session on seafood export trends at the Maine Fishermen's Forum in Rockport, Jeff Bennett from the Maine International Trade Center pointed out 95 percent of people live outside the United States. That means there are great untapped seafood sales opportunities beyond our borders.
A month later, I'm still not sure about that message. I know international trade has been valuable for the seafood industry. It fascinates me to see how much Asian holidays can spike the value of fisheries like red king crab, Dungeness crab and geoducks. Expanding trade in Asia and Europe may help Maine get more value for its abundant lobster harvest.
In China consumers will pay up to $150 per pound to put geoducks in their hotpots. But it can also lead to problems when a catch's value is dependent on something totally beyond your control. Geoduck harvesters learned this when their main market — China — shut down on December 3 after that country banned all mollusk shellfish from most of the West Coast. The ban came after Chinese officials reported finding unacceptable levels of paralytic shellfish poisoning in geoducks from Alaska and inorganic arsenic in shipments from Washington.
Testing and diplomacy have not yet been able to lift the ban. In National Fisherman's May issue, Phil Doherty, of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association in Ketchikan, tells how his group is doing what it can during the ban, which some believe is motivated more by politics than safety concerns. Whatever the reason, it's hurting the harvesters, says Doherty:
"Some divers bought permits at high costs expecting to be able to fish; others bought new boats and have boat payments; others are talking about leaving Alaska to participate in fisheries elsewhere to make some money. All divers have everyday living expenses. As long as the embargo is in place, Alaskan divers face economic hardship."
Doherty says it's possible $3 million of geoducks won't be harvested this season in Southeast Alaska (read more in our May issue's Northern Lights column, page 7).
Everyone wants to get the most value possible for their catch. That makes sense. It also makes sense to establish markets that offer both value and stability. Seattle restaurants, for example, have begun highlighting geoducks on their menus to help establish a greater local demand for Washington producers.
By looking across our borders to grow seafood consumption, we're missing a better opportunity. One of my colleagues at Seafood Business, Jamie Wright, made the case for taking another look at growing U.S. seafood consumption at his presentation at the Maine forum. In the United States the average person eats just 14.4 pounds of seafood per year, down from a record high of 16.6 pounds in 2004. For a comparison, we ate 44 pounds of pork, 54 pounds of beef and 58 pounds of chicken per capita in 2012.
Part of the problem is image, according to Wright. Seafood is usually enjoyed on special occasions. Through innovation, the industry needs to make more convenient products for everyday use. As he said, for today's consumer, "You have to produce products that eat themselves." If you'd like to dig deeper, read his story about seafood's challenges at the plate in the January issue of Seafood Business.
As Jamie also pointed out, the good news about geoducks is that they live a long time. If harvesters leave them in the sand, they'll still be OK to harvest next year (or the next, geoducks in the wild can live to be 150 years old). But as Doherty writes, it's the fishermen who might not survive geoduck's market meltdown.
Image courtesy of Taylor Shellfish Farms