The commercial salmon fishing industry could get a boost from Kenai Peninsula Borough efforts to help make Cook Inlet sockeye a household name with an established seal of approval.
The borough plan is counting on active marketing of the area's red salmon to help the industry through current troubled times.
At Tuesday's Soldotna Chamber of Commerce luncheon, representatives from the borough's Cook Inlet Sockeye Branding Project presented plans to establish a label for area reds that would be based upon quality superior to that of farmed fish.
The borough's Cook Inlet Sockeye Branding Project will establish a uniform salmon quality management program and build a brand for Cook Inlet reds.
Mark Powell, a commercial fisher and member of the steering committee, said this was something the industry should have come together to do during successful years.
"When the seasons were really booming, there wasn't a lot of money spent on marketing," Powell said. "Through our lack of foresight -- both government and industry -- we were pushed out of a lot of the niche markets."
Borough business development manager Jack Brown said the project will create "vertical integration" within the industry, carrying from the beginning of the industry cycle at the fisher's level through to the marketing end.
"You have all these individual groups coming together for the common good," he said. "Everybody in the salmon fishing industry is going to have to work together."
The first goal of the project would be to establish a quality standard for all sockeyes sold from Cook Inlet. The project will begin enlisting a third-party inspection service to establish the standard and train fishers and processors on what will be the level of quality expected. But Powell said this will only be short-lived.
"Once we have trained inspectors, we won't need (third-party inspectors)," he said.
The standard would include undamaged skin and healthy interiors, which would be attained by chilling salmon immediately after removing them from gill nets. Powell said many farmed salmon are damaged when they are gathered and often can contract diseases more quickly from swimming in closed-in streams as opposed to natural settings.
The next goal of the program is to target a well-defined upscale niche market, including high-end restaurants, independent seafood shops and possibly some food service companies.
"In a lot of cases, it would be like back on the East Coast where sockeye sells for like $12 or $13 a pound," Powell said. "It's a matter of getting a small volume of fish on a weekly basis to these buyers year-round. Our focus is going to be, right off, going to the fancy restaurant and saying, 'Wouldn't you like this piece of beautiful fish from Alaska?'"
Brown said the the budget for the first year is expected to be more than $300,000. The borough, he said, is already being awarded a $112,000 grant from the Alaska Manufacturers Association and is seeking more funding -- between $100,000 and $150,000 in grants -- from the Alaska Department of Community Economic Development.
"I feel really strong about our chances," he said.
He said the group will request other monies from the assembly and other peninsula agencies.
Powell said part of the branding label would include shipping fish out fresh during the summer time, as well as fresh-frozen salmon shipped throughout the year. Immediately frozen fish could carry more value over a long term than fresh farmed fish, he said, and indicated the connotation that goes along with the word "fresh" might not always mean the best thing.
"A 2-year-old flash-frozen salmon that was handled well is better than a 5-day-old fresh salmon from the farm," he said. "But you're looking at the word 'fresh,' and there are ways to handle that. We would call our fish 'refresh.'"
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