Back in the day, when making a small fortune hauling sockeye from Cook Inlet seemed commonplace, good fishing practices often amounted to filling boat holds with as many salmon as possible in the shortest amount of time.
Little care went into preserving the best possible quality, because there was no pressure to do so from the marketplace.
Those days are gone now. Prices are down and many commercial fishers are struggling. The advent of farmed salmon has flooded the world market with a high-quality product free of the kinds of blemishes attending seining and drifting methods common in Alaska's annual fishharvest.
To compete and still maintain the familiar lifestyle, inlet fishers must be willing to handle their product much more carefully, said Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Chris Moss of Homer, an inlet seiner by trade.
Then, they have to find a way to market the resulting high-quality fish as more desirable than the farmed variety, he added.
"Without a visible and credible presence in the market, Cook Inlet sockeye would fade into the rear echelons, attractive only to bargain hunters and serving merely as a backup in times of shortage, while farmed and branded wild salmon lay claim to customers and market niches," he said in a recent letter to the assembly.
An ordinance sponsored by Moss and introduced Feb. 5 seeks to meet the problem head on. Ordinance 2001-19-32 would appropriate $305,550 to the Cook Inlet Sockeye Branding Project, a program recommended last fall by a committee of fishers, processors, industry leaders, elected officials and borough staff. It would marry an intense quality-assurance policy to an inlet brand and market inlet salmon to high-end niche markets worldwide.
The ordinance gets a public hearing March 12.
Continuing to operate as the industry does today would be disastrous, Moss said. Prices would sink, fishers would abandon the occupation, the peninsula's economy would suffer -- all unacceptable outcomes as far as he's concerned.
"A diligent effort to adapt to the modern seafood marketplace is the only available alternative," he said.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough invested $95,000 last year, assessing needs, developing handling and quality guidelines, drafting certified quality specifications and developing a marketing strategy.
A final program plan that grew out of that effort was adopted last fall.
A steering committee formed to implement the plan, of which Moss is a member, believes the branding project will take three to five years to become firmly established.
Several possible funding sources have been identified, including federal, state and local government grants, private corporate donations or loans and monetary support from the fishing industry itself. Three grant applications already are in the works seeking start-up funding for the first year.
However, the timing of any grant approvals is critical, Moss said Tuesday.
Paperwork could put actual money-in-the-hand funding off until April or May, delaying implementation of the quality-assurance program until too late in the season to produce a sufficient quantity of product for a planned test-marketing effort next fall.
Hence, the borough is being asked to front the $305,550 in start-up funds needed by the program. Subsequent grants would be used to pay back some or all of the money, depending upon the success of the grant applications, Moss said.
It may take effort, but raising the market-end quality of Cook Inlet salmon can be achieved. Fishers and processors will have to alter the way they handle fish -- for instance, by putting fewer fish in each brailer bag, avoiding dropping fish and making shorter sets so the fish are alive when they're hauled on board.
In some cases, physical changes to vessels may be necessary, he said.
What can't be known for sure, Moss acknowledged, is whether the marketing necessary to compete effectively with farmed salmon or with already established brands of quality wild salmon will be effective. But it's worth a try, because the alternative is further decline of the industry, he said.
Singing the praises of the Alaska salmon's wild, free-roaming, deep-ocean, pristine-water life cycle may be one effective tool.
"What sells is a great story," Moss said. "Fish in a pen? There's no story in that."
Establishing a quality-control program and putting a better product before consumers isn't likely to return the Cook Inlet salmon industry to the glory days. It may not even result in more money per pound. But it may help stabilize prices in the long run, and right now, that's OK, Moss said.
The branding project has been estimated to cost more than $1 million over three years, not including vessel-modification expenses fishers would have to absorb.
A source of future funding could be the raw fish tax, but that would require state legislative action, Moss said.
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