Wild Alaska salmon not on menus in China…yet

Salmon displayed in China. Qiujie “Angie” Zheng says a recent consumer study found that Chinese shoppers are interested in buying wild Alaska salmon bones and skin for fish broth and stocks. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Sea Grant)

About a third of the salmon caught in Alaska gets shipped to China for processing. But a recent consumer study suggests that at least some of that wild salmon should stay in the Chinese markets.

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Qiujie “Angie” Zheng didn’t grow up eating much salmon in her hometown near Beijing, China. When she did, she ate farmed salmon, prepared raw — sashimi style.

“After I moved up to Alaska, I realized wild salmon…is different than farm-raised salmon dominating China market,” Zheng said.

Zheng is now an associate professor of economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She said most Chinese consumers are familiar with Alaskan salmon. It’s been popularized by fish oil pills for decades, but few have dined on it.

What you can find in Chinese markets is farmed salmon, from places like Norway and Chile. Zheng came across wild Alaska salmon only once — in a market in Hong Kong. That salmon was over $50 a pound.

“That’s very expensive,” Zheng said. “So actually, that triggered me to think if we can export more Alaska wild salmon to China market. Especially, large mainland market, definitely there is potential.”

Most of the wild salmon that’s sent to China is processed and shipped back to the U.S. or on to Europe. Zheng said very little of it actually stays in China.

So Zheg wanted to know if Chinese consumers would be interested in eating it — rather than just exporting. For her recent study, she had graduate students interview shoppers at 30 different stores in three large Chinese cities. And they found that  the majority would buy wild Alaska salmon, just not at such a steep price. Zheng said if more fish were to hit the stores, that could ultimately lower the cost.

Still, Zheng thinks part of what’s driving new interest is China’s changing demographics. More Chinese are joining the middle class, and they want to know where their food comes from.

“Due to the environmental pollution and the number of food safety scandals in China in recent years, the consumers also have growing concerns about food safety and possible contamination of their food supply,” Zheng said.

Zheng said when people in China imagine Alaska, they think pristine waters. But there’s still a ways to go before its salmon actually shows up in the stores. Zheng thinks small seafood producers across the state should form a coalition to explore the option.

And in a few years, wild Alaska salmon sashimi could start cropping up on the menu in China.