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Japan crisis impacts Alaska's economy

Alaska fishermen are poised to dip their nets into the biggest harvest of Sitka herring since statehood, but it's not clear if their only customer -- Japan -- has any appetite for the high-end product.

The multimillion-dollar herring fishery is just one of the numerous examples of how Japan's deepening humanitarian, economic and nuclear crisis is likely to affect trade relations between the two countries in the coming year.

Japan is Alaska's biggest trade partner, receiving $1.2 billion-worth of Alaska products -- mostly seafood, liquefied natural gas and minerals -- last year. Also, Alaska is a major destination for Japanese tourists in the summer and winter months. Some Japanese tourists have canceled their trips to Alaska in recent days, Alaska tour operators said.

Alaska firms have struggled to contact their customers in Japan since the massive earthquake and tsunamis last Friday, said Greg Wolf, executive director of the World Trade Council Alaska.

"Right now, our biggest concern is humanitarian," Wolf said, noting that Alaska's ties to Japan go back decades. After World War II, Japan's first overseas investment was in Southeast Alaska's former pulp mills. In the 1960s, Japan was the first foreign nation to open a trade office in Alaska, he said.

Japan's Alaska consul, Hideo Fujita, said it is impossible to guess at the trade consequences for his country and Alaska until all the damage is calculated.

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