It's always been a common way of doing business in eastern Canadian fisheries. When markets take downturns and prices dip, the answer is simple: catch more fish.
Look at the Atlantic lobster fishery. At a time when prices are reaching record lows, catches are reaching record highs. A market that is stuffed and glutted, gets stuffed and glutted some more, and the downward pressure on price grows.
It is, of course, lunacy. But we keep doing it anyway. We have to. We don't have any other option.
But what if we did have an option? What if we actually had coordinated marketing for our seafood so that we could drive demand, instead of just increasing supply every time we hit a bump in the road?
Seems like it's working out fine for Alaska.
The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) has been around since 1981, and is held up as an example of how fish marketing should be done. They have drawn the harvesting and processing industries together under one coordinated banner for the betterment of all. Oh, it's not all happy and shiny people all the time, but everyone has the same goal: improving the market and return for Alaskan products.
From branding to campaigns, to the McDonald's Filet-O-Fish to the Deadliest Catch television series, you cannot escape Alaska seafood or its "Wild, Natural and Sustainable" branding.
Treat fish like food
ASMI is mostly funded by the industry. They operate on a $22 million annual budget, about $10 million of which comes via a voluntary half per cent tax paid by fishermen when they sell product. The remainder comes from the state of Alaska (just under $8 million each year) and the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service, which provides $4.5 million in the form of a grant to fund international operations.
They are actively working and marketing in 21 countries covering North America, Europe, Asia and South America.
And ASMI has a novel idea. They treat fish as food, not as a commodity like we seem to. They cook with it, they promote it as food, they have all kinds of consumer based domestic and foreign advertising campaigns (check out the Wild Alaska Flavor website), and they are ahead of all the curves. They have been very aggressive in their use of social media in recent years to promote their stuff.
And it seems the effort has worked out pretty well. The Alaskan fishery is currently about four times more valuable than the fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador. Their industry employs about 63,000 people directly and produces about $4 to $5 billion in value each year.
$5 billion industry
And guess what? Crab isn't nearly their most lucrative species. Whitefish and salmon are.
In terms of direct impacts on the species side, pollock, pacific cod, and other groundfish and flatfish produced $2.3 billion in harvest value and generated $670 million in income for workers in Alaska in 2011. At that same time, black cod and halibut had $360 million in harvest value and generated $260 million in income.
The salmon industry produced $1.4 billion in value and created $620 million in worker income.
Compare that to the crab fishery there which was worth about $400 million, which is very similar to the landed value of the snow crab industry here in Newfoundland and Labrador. Alaskan crab generates about $200 million per year in labour income.
I should also note that nearly 14,000 people were employed in Alaska last year in pollock, cod and other groundfish or flatfish. A total of 3,700 people were employed via the crab fishery.
Now obviously all that success and economic return cannot be attributed solely to marketing, but anyone dunce enough to suggest marketing didn't play a role needs a good swift kick in the hind quarters.
I think Tyson Fick, a spokesman for ASMI, said it best. "You can have the best product in the world, but if nobody knows about it, what have you got?"
Amen to that.
Cutting the red tape
Switching gears, here's a funny little news tidbit from this week regarding Vic Young.
The former Fishery Products International chairman and CEO has a new job. He hasn't been in the public eye a whole lot these last few years, but it was announced Sept. 25 that he's taking on a new role with the federal government — Young has been appointed the chair of the Regulatory Advisory Committee as part of the federal government's Red Tape Reduction Action Plan.
I had hoped to get a few words with Young about his new appointment and what he's been up to but, rather ironically, I couldn't cut through the red tape to get him.
I was told by Treasury Board communications staff that he wasn't available on that day. So I suggested the next one. I was told he would be travelling that day. I suggested any time he had a spare moment would be fine by me. I was finally told I should let the committee get comfortable with their work and try back in a month or so.
Maybe the first step to reducing red tape might be … reducing the red tape? Just saying.