Man holding a box filled with salmon roe, aerial view of people working in the Egg House

Left: Lead Egg House Technician, Tera, from the Japanese corporation, TK, sprinkles the filled box with fine, dry salt and finalizes the process with a thorough inspection, ca. 1989. Katherine Ringsmuth private collection. Right: The Egg House processing room, ca. 1970s. Mike Rann private collection. To the left are the brine tanks and the recently removed roe, settling in blue baskets. Once drained, the roe is graded on a sorting table, the best grades reserved for the “Tops.” At the packing table, Egg House workers pack the roe into wooden boxes with plastic inserts.

THE EGG HOUSE: the Japanese Market

Before the 1960s, Alaska canneries disposed of the salmon eggs, called roe, along with the heads, fins, and other viscera. In the mid-1960s, the United States lifted bans on Japanese import/exports that had been in place since before World War II.

With the liberalization of the Japanese market, demand for salmon soared. Considered a delicacy, Japanese consumers valued salmon roe, known as sujiko.

In 1964, Yoshio Tashiro, an executive of the Japanese trading company Marubeni, visited a cannery on Kodiak Island and was shocked that the Alaska canners wasted the roe, tossing the eggs into the sea.

Tashiro offered to purchase all the red salmon eggs they could process. The following season, he arrived with specialized equipment and technicians to prepare the eggs for Japanese consumers. Alaska canneries survived an industry downturn in the 1970s by processing sujiko for the Japanese market.

Salmon roe proved to be the most lucrative salmon by-product and played an economically significant role in revitalizing the canning industry in the latter part of the 20th century.