Larry Nelson, an owner of Great Northern Sea Products, says he’s been unable to reach one of his business partners at the Sato Suisan company in Onagawa. “I’ve seen one picture of Onagawa. There’s really nothing left,” Nelson said.
Nelson supplies Sato Suisan with Alaska herring and salmon roe, along with herring milt – fish sperm that’s used in Japanese soups and other delicacies. But Nelson says selling seafood is not the priority right now. He’s spent days trying to make contact with someone from the company. “We don’t know anything until we find out if they’re even alive. We’re praying that everyone’s alive, that they’re just all seeking refuge on higher ground,” Nelson said.
“A lot of the companies who have been dealing with Japan have been dealing with them for 10, 15, 30 years,” said Robin Richardson, who manages the membership of the Alaska-based Global Food Collaborative, an organization that markets agricultural and food products.
Richardson says the shock and loss is understandable, especially because the Japanese work hard to cultivate long and respectful relationships.
Richardson says, beyond the personal loss, there’s uncertainty about the future. “Japan has been a major investor in Alaska in our seafood industry, particularly in Western Alaska. They still remain as really good investor partners with Alaska, so the economic impact is going to be the second thing we’re going to be concerned about.”
At a warehouse near the Anchorage airport, one company is already feeling impact from the earthquake.
Commodity Forwarders, Inc. is dealing with an embargo on freight destined for Japan, because the supply chain in Japan is backed up and warehouses there are full. “It means we have to store the product here before we can ship it out,” said CFI station manager P.J. Cranmer. “So it backlogs us here. We were going to send some fresh cod milt. Now we’re going to have to hold it until the embargo is released.”
Cranmer says he expects the freight problems to be resolved in a few days, but for many who do business with seafood buyers in Japan, the question looms: “Will Japan continue to be a strong buyer of Alaska’s seafood products?”
That question is important to many Alaska businesses like CFI. From January through March, the company ships cod milt to the Japanese. When the salmon season starts, the CFI warehouse is typically filled with shipments of salmon roe through August.
There are also questions about whether the Japanese plants that process Alaskan seafood were wiped out in the tsunami -- and whether the industry can maintain its cold storage facilities in the face of rolling black-outs.
“Some of our customers have their importers over there, and they’re not even sure they’re alive over there,” said Cranmer.
The economic fallout will likely spread beyond the fishing industry.
“Japan has been and continues to be our number one trading partner,” says Greg Wolf, executive director of the World Trade Center Alaska. Wolf says Japan spends about a billion dollars a year on Alaskan products. “It's hard to overstate the importance of Japan, at least in terms of international trade. Number one in many categories. Number one, overall, for many, many decades.”
Japan has long been one of the biggest buyers for Alaska seafood, but it also spends millions in energy, mostly liquefied natural gas, minerals and timber products.
There’s also Japan’s impact on the travel industry. Without Japanese visitors in search of the Aurora, Alaska wouldn’t have much winter tourism business.
Alaska and Japan are perhaps more closely linked than Alaska is with most other states in the Lower 48. Their economic ties go back to just after World War II, when the Japanese invested in a sawmill in Southeast Alaska.
In 1965, Alaska was the first state to open a trade office in Japan. In September of 1971, Emperor Hirohito traveled to Anchorage to meet with President Richard Nixon. It was the first time a Japanese emperor had ever set foot on American soil, and that soil was in Alaska. From there, the relationship took root and continued to grow.
Among some of the efforts that have borne fruit -- Anchorage has close ties with its Japanese sister city, Chitose, as well as a Japanese-language immersion program at Sand Lake Elementary. The Japanese government also helped to fund the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Wolf is hoping that Alaskans will honor this longstanding connection. “We’re not a sunshine friend,” says Wolf. “I’m encouraging all Alaskans to see what they can do individually to help those relief agencies that are on the ground in Japan now.”
On the 13th floor of the Frontier building in Midtown Anchorage, the mood at the Japanese consulate office is somber but hopeful.
“I was totally overwhelmed and shocked,” said Hideo Fujito at the Anchorage consulate, describing his reaction to the first images of the disaster. “And when I saw pictures, I thought I was looking at a horror picture.”
He says he’s been comforted by the genuine concern Alaskans have expressed, including a letter from Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell.
Fujito says the Japanese appreciate the offers of help. “Through this tragedy I learned that people have very friendly feelings to Japan. That's why I received so many kind and encouraging words from people of Alaska.”