Darrell Wood and Drew Sparlin reel in a driftnet aboard the F/V Lady Lee in Cook Inlet. A new ice-making facility at the mouth of the Kenai River will allow commercial fishers interested in selling value-added products to keep their catch cool before getting it processed.
Clarion file photo by Nick Medle
It could be a very cool year for Cook Inlet commercial fishers.
A planned $750,000 ice-making plant is scheduled to be operating at the mouth of the Kenai River this year, giving a big boost to area commercial salmon fishers and processors hoping a recent trend toward producing higher-quality Kenai fish products will continue.
Cook Inlet Salmon Brand Inc. Executive Director Sylvia Beaudoin said the icing project could help Cook Inlet fishers produce as much as 300,000 to 400,000 pounds of certified "Kenai Wild" fish this summer nearly double what was certified last year.
Kenai Wild is CISB's brand name for the high-quality fish it is marketing to Outside consumers and Alaska restaurants as a top wild alternative to farm-raised salmon.
The 4-year-old program has made big strides since its inception, and Beaudoin said the brand is becoming recognized as a leader in Alaska branded fisheries.
Beaudoin said the statewide trend in recent years has been to follow the model set up by Kenai Wild, with notable branding programs now operating in Bristol Bay, the Aleutians and Kodiak. But with the notable exception of Copper River king salmon a band that's been well-known among consumers for more than a decade Kenai Wild appears to be setting the pace.
"Kenai Wild looks to be at least two years ahead of the others out there," she said.
That advantage gives Kenai Wild a leg up because more people are already familiar with the brand.
"I think it gives us what they call first-mover advantage," she said.
The new ice project is just one of a number of things happening within the program. A Web site recently was set up to give consumers better access to Kenai Wild fish and the brand is experimenting with different cuts of meat and products they'll be able to offer in coming years.
The bottom line is the reason Kenai Wild began in the first place. Because most commercially caught sockeye have traditionally competed as commodity fish in the world marketplace, the price paid to inlet fishers has plummeted over the past 15 years.
Even though Cook Inlet fishers still are able to harvest good numbers of fish the 2004 commercial harvest was nearly 5 million fish prices have hovered around 60 cents per pound, a far cry from the 1980s, when Cook Inlet sockeye salmon fetched more then $1 per pound on the open market.
That dramatic price drop was caused when a glut of farmed salmon began hitting the market in the early 1990s. Farmed fish are easier to process than wild fish, making them attractive to fish buyers looking for consistency. But they're also fed chemical dyes and can cause pollution in local areas, meaning many consumers now are seeking a high-quality, wild alternative.
That's where the Kenai Wild fish come in. Because they are certified as top quality, they can command a much higher price on the open market than noncertified fish and the hope is improving the overall quality of Cook Inlet fish will lead to a resurgence in the commercial fishing industry.
"I think there's definitely a sense of hope out there," Beaudoin said.
With new developments like increased ice capacity which enables fishers to keep fish cool as they await processing, thereby producing a high-quality product Beaudoin said the future is looking better and better each year for the project.
"We've definitely been making a good, measurable amount of progress over the last few years," she said.
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