Fishers working to change industry's ebb tide

Posted: Tuesday, February 25, 2003

After enduring years of modest runs, abysmal prices and dwindling success, Kenai Peninsula fishers may finally have reason to be optimistic about the industry's future in Cook Inlet.

That's because a burgeoning movement on the peninsula is working toward marketing Cook Inlet's wild salmon as a healthy, high quality, consistent alternative to farmed fish. The plan is to eventually make "Kenai Wild" the brand of choice among discerning consumers across the nation, thereby raising the price local fishers get for their catch.

However, that movement is still in its infancy, and the outlook still isn't especially bright for the 2003 fishing season.

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the total return of sockeye salmon to upper Cook Inlet is projected to be roughly 3.9 million fish, with a commercial harvest of around 2 million sockeye forecast.

Last season, upper Cook Inlet commercial fishers harvested 2.8 million sockeye, slightly more than the historic average catch.

The overall value for those salmon totaled just $11.6 million -- not a lot, considering just 5 years ago the overall value of the upper Cook Inlet sockeye catch was more than three times as much.

The numbers of salmon returning to Cook Inlet streams is healthy. But due to a glut of salmon on the world market caused by an explosion of farmed fish, those fish simply aren't worth as much as in times past.

This season, fishers can expect to again see near-historic low prices for inlet sockeye. Last year's fish fetched just 56 cents per pound, and prices are expected to hover near that level again this season.

According to Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association President Paul Shadura, the only way for local fishers to survive is to actively seek innovative ways to market their product.

He said the Kenai Wild program is a way to do that because it allows fishers the chance to sell to the lucrative domestic market, rather than shipping the fish overseas.

"For the American market, their palates have been conditioned to the farmed fish," Shadura said. "(Kenai Wild) raises the standard and raises awareness for all those involved. It's the only option when you want to sell on the domestic market."

The Kenai Wild program began last year, after a group of processors, fishers and government officials secured funding through the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the state to begin a regional salmon branding project. The idea is similar to one used by Copper River fishers for many years.

Copper River fish consistently fetch a premium price because they are generally the first wild Alaska sockeye to hit the market in June and have been able to establish a well-known identity on the market, something the Kenai Wild brand aspires to emulate.

However, in order to convince consumers that Cook Inlet salmon is the best choice, fishers must adhere to strict quality guidelines that include chilling and bleeding fish right after they're caught and handling the salmon with a substantial degree of care.

That means fishers who participate in the program must have special training and equipment to handle the fish properly.

Shadura said asking fishers who have been doing things the same way for generations to abruptly change their ways isn't always an easy sell.

"How do you get the fishermen involved?" he asked. "Change is a frightening thing for most people."

Only a small number of Cook Inlet fishers currently are participating in the Kenai Wild program. Shadura said the group hopes to process around 200,000 pounds of salmon this season, with roughly 50,000 to 60,000 pounds to be certified as "premium grade" Kenai Wild fish. That's still just a drop in the bucket compared to an overall harvest that runs into the millions of pounds.

"It's still in its infancy," Shadura said.

He also noted there is an enormous market for high quality salmon -- ironically because of the abundance of farmed fish on the market.

"For the American market, their palates have been conditioned to the farmed fish," Shadura said, pointing out farmed fish can be delivered with consistent quality because of the way they are raised. However, he also pointed out that if local fishers can raise wild fish to that level, consumers eventually will turn to wild salmon.

"There is a market share we should be having in this thing," he said. "The potential is there. It just depends on how well we can market the salmon."

For the time being, Cook Inlet fishers will continue to contend with slumping prices and stiff competition from fish farms.

The good news is there now is some optimism among commercial fishers, and individuals are taking the initiative to rebuild a once-lucrative industry.

"The fact that we're doing something positive is the biggest gain," Shadura said.

CREDIT:Clarion file photo

CAPTION:Christine Keenan of Surefish Quality Specialists grades red salmon at Deep Creek Custom Packing for the Kenai Wild salmon program.

BYLINE1:By MATT TUNSETH

BYLINE2:Peninsula Clarion

After enduring years of modest runs, abysmal prices and dwindling success, Kenai Peninsula fishers may finally have reason to be optimistic about the industry's future in Cook Inlet.

That's because a burgeoning movement on the peninsula is working toward marketing Cook Inlet's wild salmon as a healthy, high quality, consistent alternative to farmed fish. The plan is to eventually make "Kenai Wild" the brand of choice among discerning consumers across the nation, thereby raising the price local fishers get for their catch.

However, that movement is still in its infancy, and the outlook still isn't especially bright for the 2003 fishing season.

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the total return of sockeye salmon to upper Cook Inlet is projected to be roughly 3.9 million fish, with a commercial harvest of around 2 million sockeye forecast.

Last season, upper Cook Inlet commercial fishers harvested 2.8 million sockeye, slightly more than the historic average catch.

The overall value for those salmon totaled just $11.6 million -- not a lot, considering just 5 years ago the overall value of the upper Cook Inlet sockeye catch was more than three times as much.

The numbers of salmon returning to Cook Inlet streams is healthy. But due to a glut of salmon on the world market caused by an explosion of farmed fish, those fish simply aren't worth as much as in times past.

This season, fishers can expect to again see near-historic low prices for inlet sockeye. Last year's fish fetched just 56 cents per pound, and prices are expected to hover near that level again this season.

According to Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association President Paul Shadura, the only way for local fishers to survive is to actively seek innovative ways to market their product.

He said the Kenai Wild program is a way to do that because it allows fishers the chance to sell to the lucrative domestic market, rather than shipping the fish overseas.

"For the American market, their palates have been conditioned to the farmed fish," Shadura said. "(Kenai Wild) raises the standard and raises awareness for all those involved. It's the only option when you want to sell on the domestic market."

The Kenai Wild program began last year, after a group of processors, fishers and government officials secured funding through the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the state to begin a regional salmon branding project. The idea is similar to one used by Copper River fishers for many years.

Copper River fish consistently fetch a premium price because they are generally the first wild Alaska sockeye to hit the market in June and have been able to establish a well-known identity on the market, something the Kenai Wild brand aspires to emulate.

However, in order to convince consumers that Cook Inlet salmon is the best choice, fishers must adhere to strict quality guidelines that include chilling and bleeding fish right after they're caught and handling the salmon with a substantial degree of care.

That means fishers who participate in the program must have special training and equipment to handle the fish properly.

Shadura said asking fishers who have been doing things the same way for generations to abruptly change their ways isn't always an easy sell.

"How do you get the fishermen involved?" he asked. "Change is a frightening thing for most people."

Only a small number of Cook Inlet fishers currently are participating in the Kenai Wild program. Shadura said the group hopes to process around 200,000 pounds of salmon this season, with roughly 50,000 to 60,000 pounds to be certified as "premium grade" Kenai Wild fish. That's still just a drop in the bucket compared to an overall harvest that runs into the millions of pounds.

"It's still in its infancy," Shadura said.

He also noted there is an enormous market for high quality salmon -- ironically because of the abundance of farmed fish on the market.

"For the American market, their palates have been conditioned to the farmed fish," Shadura said, pointing out farmed fish can be delivered with consistent quality because of the way they are raised. However, he also pointed out that if local fishers can raise wild fish to that level, consumers eventually will turn to wild salmon.

"There is a market share we should be having in this thing," he said. "The potential is there. It just depends on how well we can market the salmon."

For the time being, Cook Inlet fishers will continue to contend with slumping prices and stiff competition from fish farms.

The good news is there now is some optimism among commercial fishers, and individuals are taking the initiative to rebuild a once-lucrative industry.

"The fact that we're doing something positive is the biggest gain," Shadura said.



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