Darrell Wood and Drew Sparlin reel in a salmon driftnet aboard the F/V Lady Lee in Cook Inlet.
Clarion file photo by Nick Medley
The nation’s top cooks have awarded Cook Inlet reds the gold for being the best-tasting fresh-frozen salmon when processed by the standards of Kenai Wild.
Chefs in America, an organization representing America’s top chefs, presented the award to Kenai Wild, as well as an invitation to attend and display its product at four of the organization’s national culinary events.
The invitation is likely to generate even more recognition for the brand, said Kay Shearer, executive director at Kenai Wild, a nonprofit organization incorporated in 2002 to establish high-quality Cook Inlet sockeye salmon as a recognized brand.
The award shows that with proper handling, Cook Inlet sockeye fishermen can provide an intrinsically high-quality product, said Gary Fandrei, a founding member of Kenai Wild.
“(Kenai Wild) has demonstrated that there are other markets out there that people haven’t been addressing,” Fandrei said.
Recognition for the brand is growing among fishermen, as well as consumers. With each year more and more fisherman are processing their fish using Kenai Wild standards, Fandrei said.
Doing so can help boost fishermen’s profits.
Nate Berga, a recent member of the Kenai Wild board and part owner of a processing plant in Kasilof, said Kenai Wild is a turn in the right direction for Cook Inlet’s sockeye salmon market.
Particularly this fishing season, since the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is forecasting a slimmer catch, fishermen are looking to the Kenai Wild brand as a way to make up for profits lost to small catches.
The Fish and Game forecast estimates that 2.1 million sockeye salmon will be caught in Upper Cook Inlet this season, compared to a commercial harvest of 5.1 million sockeye last year.
“You’re trading out volume for quality,” he said of the Kenai Wild program.
Berga said his family began processing their fish by Kenai Wild standards for the fist time last year and are pleased with the results.
“We had a great experience with the program in regard to finances,” Berga said. “We definitely saw a higher price on the fish sold as Kenai Wild.”
Berga said his family is encouraging fishermen who bring fish to their plant to also become involved in the program.
“A lot of this rests on the fishermen,” Berga said. “They are the first step in the process. ... It really revolves around the fishermen and their desire to see higher prices.”
Fishermen wanting to sell their sockeye salmon under the Kenai Wild brand must handle the fish carefully to avoid bruising, bleed the fish on capture and put the fish on slush ice.
“Do I want to eat a fish that’s been sitting in the sun all day?” Berga said. “(Kenai Wild fish are) going to taste better and it’s healthier.”
Fandrei said he thinks the overall percentage of sockeye salmon fishermen who are properly chilling their catch has risen since Kenai Wild standards were introduced, even among fishermen who are not a part of the Kenai Wild program.
Although the consumer sets the standards for the market, Kenai Wild has been, and likely will continue to be, influential in promoting new techniques and technology in an effort to provide a better product, Fandrei said.
“We will basically be the learning curve for the rest of the industry,” he said. “We’re going to be the organization that is most willing to say this needs to be done.”
Despite all of its successes, however, Kenai Wild still has plenty of room for improvement, he said.
“I would say we’re doing B work,” he said.
Fandrei said that he may be more critical than most, but he thinks the organization should become more streamlined. The organization’s quality tracking system, for example, is somewhat cumbersome and slows processing more than it ought to, he said.
But Fandrei said Kenai Wild still is relatively young and growing pains are to be expected.
“The thing that I would emphasis is that this program is growing and maturing,” he said.
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