The commercial salmon industry on the Kenai Peninsula appears to be in prime position to regain global market share lost to farmed fish over the past decade.
According to Mark Powell, president of Cook Inlet Salmon Branding Inc. (CISB), a number of factors are moving in favor of fish caught in Alaska as opposed to those harvested elsewhere.
"New developments in the market conditions are lining up to be favorable to a certified, high quality product," Powell said in January.
Powell said a heightened global awareness of such things as higher mercury and dye levels in farmed fish may be starting to push consumers toward wild products.
"It's very encouraging to us in that the public is definitely starting to step up with a desire to understand that information," he said.
CISB is a group of area fishers and government officials that three years ago began the Kenai Wild branding project. Kenai Wild is a brand of premium grade, Cook Inlet sockeye salmon that is held to strict quality standards.
Commercial fishers are hoping that marketing can help raise desire for their wild product.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
Many in the fishing industry believe the project represents the future for area commercial fishers because it enhances the demand for local salmon, something that's been lacking since the farmed fish boom of the early 1990s.
One of those is Paul Shadura, whose family has fished the waters of Cook Inlet for generations. Now president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association, Shadura said he believes the salmon branding concept can help revitalize the industry.
"The branding concept does work," Shadura said. "The initial indications show that the branding efforts are working and there is a demand for the product."
Powell said that in addition to the health benefits of Kenai Wild fish over farmed salmon, the current Atkins diet craze could help the overall salmon market because people are looking for high protein alternatives to beef products. "Wild salmon is a very safe and healthy protein source," Powell said.
Another way Cook Inlet salmon fishers are working to improve the value of their catch is by becoming independent marketers of value-added products.
According to Kenai Peninsula Borough Business Development Manager Jack Brown, the borough currently is working with individual fishers to help them develop ideas for marketing products Outside like smoked salmon and salmon jerky.
In addition to the good news about the potential markets for salmon, fishers also are hearing solid things about sockeye returns in the near future. In fact, this summer's run is projected by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to be the largest since 1997.
"It's one of the higher returns we've had," said Fish and Game biologist Jeff Fox earlier this year.
Fox said an estimated 5.2 million sockeye are projected to return to upper Cook Inlet. If that number holds, commercial fishers will be expected to harvest more than 3 million fish a solid season as long as the market is there.
Brown said all the measures being taken to revitalize the area's commercial salmon fishery, when taken together, mean there is finally some enthusiasm in the industry for the first time since the salmon market crashed more than a decade ago.
"It is exciting," he said.
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