Commercial fishing shows signs of aging

Posted: Thursday, January 22, 2004

In its three years of existence, Cook Inlet Salmon Branding Inc. has enjoyed some modest success and is seeing encouraging signs that its Kenai Wild products may be gaining access to Outside markets.

But as important as that goal is, the principal driving force behind the program is a desire to revitalize the aging commercial fishing industry and make it an economically attractive lifestyle for young Alaskans once again, said Brandii O'Reagan, hired by CISB as an independent consultant to oversee the Kenai Wild quality assurance program.

O'Reagan is the owner of Integrity Seafood Inspection Service.

"I want to point out that one thing we stress are the lives that are touched by commercial fishing," O'Reagan told a Tuesday luncheon audience of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce. "It is an aging industry. That is a trend that we need to change. That is what Kenai Wild is really about. Yes, we want to get a lot of salmon in and we want to develop these markets, but those are all secondary to our main effort to make commercial fishing a viable industry for people to enter and remain in."

Compared to 15 to 20 years ago, few young Alaskans today are drawn to commercial fishing and getting the experience they need to succeed in the industry, she said.

"We have very few young people working as deckhands. They are not buying fishing permits anymore, and they are not buying boats," she said. "The results of that are that processors won't continue to receive fish if we don't have people out there getting it. That means our kids aren't going to have processors to work at."

O'Reagan said that although she has never asked their specific ages, of the 40 to 50 fishers who regularly deliver to CISB, only two or three appeared to be under the age of 40.

If Kenai Wild can successfully market its high-quality salmon products and increase the price to harvesters, commercial fishing may return to economical viability and become a full-time livelihood, not just something people "do on the side," O'Reagan said.

"It has been a historical part of the Kenai Peninsula, and we really don't want to see that go away," she said.

Recent marketing efforts and products developed through new techniques have begun to draw attention to Kenai Wild products.

For instance, Kenai Wild is starting to develop what it calls a "twice-frozen" salmon product. Essentially, fresh salmon are headed and gutted and then frozen, later to be thawed, filleted, vacuum packed and refrozen for shipment to market during the off-season winter months when Alaska fresh salmon usually has not been available.

That seasonal unavailability is what has given farmed fish, which is available year-round, such an advantage.

Recent criticisms leveled at farmed salmon regarding possible environmental impacts and health risks have opened a door for Kenai Wild, which is developing handling standards for delivering a quality twice-frozen product that can compete favorably with farmed salmon, O'Reagan said.

"We are finding that the quality doesn't decrease as much as people though it would when you are dealing with a twice-frozen product," she said. "That is really exciting for us."

Also recently, Kenai Wild sent representatives to two market chains Outside, one on the West Coast and one in the Midwest, where salmon products are well received. Demand is outstripping the ability of Kenai Wild to supply.

"It's been a phenomenal market response," O'Reagan said. "The next hurdle that we face is actually developing the ability to produce enough to meet the market demand."

That will mean upscaling to run a year-round operation, which also means developing a work force that is available year round, she said.

Last month, company president Mark Powell said CISB had successfully moved its 2003 fish and that consumers Outside were eager for more.

Some 108,000 pounds of Kenai Wild salmon were certified during last summer's salmon run, nearly five times the poundage certified in 2002, he said.

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