Alaska seafood is known worldwide for its variety, freshness, and taste. Consumers around the world know that any item on a menu that has ‘Alaska’ on it will be high quality fare that they will enjoy. This reputation
has been built upon years of hard work by the fishermen, transporters, and public officials of the state and federal government, who’ve built a brand that has remained strong. But, as with any industry, times have changed in the Alaska seafood business, and accordingly, the people and business of Alaska have adapted to those changes.
For years, the city of Anchorage has acted as a hub for the shipment of seafood around the globe, functioning as the shipping and processing point for a large part of the state’s seafood industry. The city has helped supply restaurants, seafood wholesalers, and consumers with a wide array of products, which range from Copper River salmon, to halibut fillets, and rockfish.
At one time the state of Alaska supplied over 50 percent of the world’s salmon, however, the rise of aquaculture has driven Alaska’s market share down considerably, to less than 20 percent. This drop has forced Alaskans to focus on the production chain, as a way to maximize the dollar value that salmon and other seafood products bring to the state, and as a way to continue bringing the best product to consumers. This is the challenge that we in Alaska face as we deal with a sustainable resource like seafood. In many cases, the supply cannot go up, so additional value needs to be found in other places.
This idea is proved out by a 2002 report from Alaska’s Office of Fisheries Development, which notes, “We believe that pursuing a high value, high quality strategy for our salmon, in particular our premier salmon species, is a key to maximizing the value of this industry.” To do this, Anchorage Economic Development Corporation, along with leaders in industry as well as city and state government, have undertaken the challenge of improving and upgrading the “cool chain” that exists in the state; that is, bringing better and more sophisticated food storage facilities, particularly to remote areas that supply these key products.
Here in Anchorage, people uniquely understand that the transportation and logistics surrounding the seafood industry is a critical link in the chain. On television, catching crab has become famous via the Discovery Channel’s show The Deadliest Catch, which follows the harrowing adventures of crab fishermen out on the Bering Sea. After the catch has been landed though, the unsung heroes are the professionals who get that precious cargo to the dinner table.
Within the Alaskan seafood industry itself, much has been done to teach seafood harvesters proper handling and packaging techniques for quality assurance. However, once product enters the transportation system, maintaining safety and quality through proper temperature control is difficult. Sellers of Alaskan seafood estimate a 25 percent spoilage rate for fresh product exported from Alaska. The reason being that fresh fish caught in rural areas may sit out on airport tarmac for hours in extreme temperatures before being transported into Anchorage for further distribution. Every hour outside of the cool chain results in the loss of one day of shelf life.
While diners might not realize it, the “cool chain,” or transportation and refrigeration along the delivery route, is the key part of protecting the value of the seafood. Without logistics professionals to help store and ship the catch, then all the hard work and rigor we see on television goes out the window. If the catch is spoiled by the time it gets to consumers, its value is ‘zero.’
Cool Chain Will Help State, U.S. Wholesalers Maximizing the ‘value’ of Alaska’s cool chain is helped by our strategic location and the facilities that are already in place.
Anchorage sits only 9.5 hours from 90 percent of major air cargo hubs, making it a high-value location for shipping and logistics. As measured by landed cargo weight, Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is the third busiest cargo airport in the world, just behind Hong Kong and Memphis.
Each week, Ted Stevens International Airport sees over 650 wide-body landings. These planes are filled with goods coming into the U.S. from Asia and Europe, or products from the lower 48 to Alaska. Many of these flights are filled with non-perishable goods, such as industrial parts or high-tech items being imported or exported out of the U.S.
An increase in state-of-the-art perishables handling infrastructure in Alaska will dramatically reduce the risks associated with transporting fresh seafood from remote locations in Alaska and open new market opportunities for fresh Alaskan seafood – a clear benefit for the state and our companies. The cool chain will also help our residents, particularly those in remote regions, as the ‘cool chain’ works both ways. Shipment of incoming perishable cargo destined for rural Alaska will help stop the high spoilage rates (as much as 30 percent), of food destined for these distant cities.
The improvements made in Anchorage’s ‘cool chain’ will prove to be a positive for Alaska, but also for those awaiting perishable shipments from abroad. The average percentage of perishable air cargo worldwide is approximately 11-14 percent and is expected to rise rapidly (7-8 percent per year) over the next 10 years. However, officials in Anchorage estimate that the average perishable goods on the cargo planes moving through Anchorage is closer to 4 percent of the total amount, nearly 7-10 percent lower than the international average.
The low amount of perishable cargo moving through the airport compared to the high status of Anchorage in the logistics world, indicates that shippers of perishables are currently avoiding Anchorage and creates an obvious disparity for a well-known cargo hub, but also a missed opportunity. In fact, management professionals who work in “cool chain” logistics visiting Anchorage over the last year have stated several times that shippers are most likely avoiding ANC due to lack of state-of-the-art perishable handling infrastructure.
Anchorage’s northern location and sometimes extreme weather are not a threat to perishable food products that come through the city, a major misconception. As World Trade Magazine recently noted “[Ted Stevens International] has never had to close due to snow, and in the past 15 years has not closed once on account of inclement weather.” Investments made to the “cool chain” infrastructure are matched by those to the airport itself, which help to improve this track record.
City and state governments, as well as the businesses of Anchorage are not sitting idly by. A $55 million air-cargo expansion plan is currently under construction at Anchorage’s international airport. Anchorage Global Logistics Airpark Development will help ship seafood around the world and provide the “cool chain” hub that logistics professionals need for perishable items.
Investments made outside of Anchorage are also making a difference for products destined for outside markets. The addition of cool chain facilities in cities such as Kotzebue and Bethel will mean better quality products arriving at Ted Stevens International for shipment.
Training for the Future
The future of the seafood industry and logistics in Anchorage are being put in the hands of newly trained professionals that are home-schooled, in a sense. Our next generation of leaders is taking courses locally at the University of Alaska – Anchorage, which began offering a course in Seafood Logistics in 2005 under the school’s Global Logistics program. The course covers all links in the seafood supply chain, including ecology, harvesting, processing, value-adding, storage, shipping, safety, quality, marketing, and cuisine.
Students of the course learn from industry professionals, who have worked in the Alaska seafood industry for years. Stephen Grabacki, the current instructor of the course, is also President of GRAYSTAR Pacific Seafood, Ltd., an Anchorage-based consulting company. Grabacki has 29 years of experience in the business and is a Certified Fisheries Professional, in addition to running his own business.
“Alaska seafood is the best in the world – it’s abundant and sustainable, and its intrinsic qualities such as taste, nutrition, and value, are extremely high,” says Grabacki. “Proper chilling, gentle handling, and rapid shipment ensure that our consumers enjoy the very best of Alaska seafood’s value.”
Through the investments made in Anchorage, both in the “cool supply” chain, at Ted Stevens International, and in our university system, the Alaskan seafood industry will continue to turn out high quality products that will retain their value. The people of Alaska will benefit from fresher foods from around the world and from the added revenue brought by these products.
The future is bright for Anchorage as a perishable goods cargo hub.
Restaurants around the world will benefit from these investments, as Alaska seafood will reach their table faster and fresher, and goods from around the world will transition through the cargo hub and reach their destination sooner. For Anchorage, the investments made in the “cool chain” will have distinct impacts on our economy for years to come and will continue to be made as new challenges arise.
Bill Popp is President/CEO, Anchorage Economic Development Corporation (AEDC), an organization to encourage growth and diversity in the Anchorage economy. Visit www.aedcweb.com