Pacific salmon swim as far as 2,000 miles to lay their eggs in rivers up and down the Northwest. Once caught, some make a longer journey...

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Pacific salmon swim as far as 2,000 miles to lay their eggs in rivers up and down the Northwest. Once caught, some make a longer journey: 8,000 miles round-trip to China.

Facing growing imports of low-cost seafood, fish processors in the Northwest, including Seattle-based Trident Seafoods, are sending part of their catch of Alaskan salmon or Dungeness crab to China to be filleted or de-shelled before returning to U.S. tables.

“There are 36 pin bones in a salmon and the best way to remove them is by hand,” says Charles Bundrant, founder of Trident, which ships about 30 million pounds of its 1.2 billion-pound annual harvest to China for processing. “Something that would cost us $1 per pound labor here, they get it done for 20 cents in China.”

Trident and other companies that use Chinese labor say it is a way to protect a Northwest industry under threat from farmed seafood produced by nations such as China, Thailand, Vietnam and Chile.

Imports accounted for 78 percent of the 4.7 billion pounds of seafood Americans consumed last year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Alaska and Washington have each lost about one-fifth of their processing jobs over the past decade. In Washington, average monthly employment in the industry fell to 6,434 in 2004 from 8,668 in 1994, says Rick Lockhart, a state economist. Alaska’s employment dropped to 8,500 last year from 10,400 in 1995, according to the Web site of the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

The industry’s big fish

Three of the top four seafood suppliers in the U.S. are privately owned companies based on the West Coast, according to SeaFood Business magazine’s 2004 sales rankings.

1. Trident Seafoods (Seattle) $800 million

2. Red Chamber Group (Vernon, Calif.) $793 million

3. (tie) Pacific Seafood Group (Clackamas, Ore.) $700 million

ConAgra’s Louis Kemp unit (Omaha, Neb.) $700 million

Source: SeaFood Business

“It’s a dying industry in the U.S.,” says Tony Neves, senior vice president of Vernon, Calif.-based Red Chamber, the second-biggest U.S. seafood company. “It’s a sad reality, but it’s a fact.”

Clackamas, Ore.-based Pacific Seafood Group, the third-biggest U.S. seafood company, started a trial six months ago to process Dungeness crabs in Qingdao, China. The crab, found from the Aleutian Islands off Alaska to south of San Francisco, is named after the town in Washington where it was first harvested commercially.

Crab shakers in Qingdao get $100 to $150 a month to extract meat from crab shells with pincers — one-tenth what it might cost in the U.S., says John Lin, who oversees new-product development at Pacific’s headquarters.

“Because labor is so much more affordable, they can spend more time to take the crab meat out” in China, Lin says. “There’s a higher recovery rate.”

Seattle-based Premier Pacific Seafoods spent $10 million last year to build a new facility on its 680-foot Ocean Phoenix fishing vessel to prepare Alaskan pollock for sale to processors in China.

The fish are de-headed and gutted on the ship in the Bering Sea, then frozen and sent to China, says Douglas Forsyth, Premier Pacific’s president. Once there, they are boned, skinned and cut into portions of 2 ounces to 6 ounces, he says.

Supermarket chains and nationwide retailers are helping to drive the practice, Forsyth says. “You’re dealing with national retail chains that have strict product specifications that are so exacting that they require hand processing,” he says.

Even factoring in 20 cents a pound in transportation costs, processing in China is still cheaper for the most labor-intensive fish, says Trident’s Bundrant.

The company freezes its salmon within hours of harvest and then ships them to China, where they are thawed to 40 degrees and boned. The journey there and back takes two months, Bundrant says.

Bundrant started with a single boat, fishing for Alaskan king crab. Costs in the U.S. are almost prohibitive, he says, citing competition from farmed fish from other parts of the world.

“It’s a labor-intensive product,” he says in his 60,000-square-foot processing and cold-storage facility on Pier 91, off Elliott Bay in Seattle.

Fish processed in China don’t have to bear a “Made in China” label.

At a QFC supermarket in Seattle, operated by Cincinnati-based Kroger, Trident’s frozen salmon burgers are sold in packages marking them as ocean-caught, wild Alaska products. Some fish in the burgers may have been boned in China, Bundrant says.

That disclosure isn’t required under U.S. Department of Agriculture labeling rules, as long as a “substantial transformation,” such as breading or frying, still takes place in the U.S., says William Mardon, a fresh-seafood buyer for U.S. stores of Issaquah-based Costco, the largest U.S. warehouse-club retailer. The Trident burgers are par-fried in canola or soybean oil.

Under the USDA’s Country of Origin Labeling Act, which became effective in April, retailers must label the country of origin for seafood, and whether it is farmed or wild. The act excludes seafood that is cooked, breaded, canned, cured, smoked or marinated.

Outsourcing needs to be monitored carefully to ensure Chinese plants comply with U.S. food-handling standards, says Lisa Goche, president of Surefish, a seafood-inspection company based in Seattle.

The firm is getting more work from U.S. companies to audit plants in China as more fish is processed there, she says.

“As in other countries, the quality is variable,” Goche says. “Some of it is good, some of it is not so good. When we do find defects, the most common types of problems are odors of decomposition, overall quality issues like texture, flavor and defects like bruising.”

Premier Pacific’s Forsyth says he hasn’t noticed many defects at Chinese plants. “The ones I’ve been in, I’ll eat off the floor,” he says.