The future of the Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery depends on the ability for fishers to deliver a consistent, high-quality product to the marketplace. That's the idea behind the Cook Inlet Salmon Branding Project, an idea that is garnering a lot of attention within the industry.
The salmon branding plan was discussed with interested fishers at a meeting last Thursday at Snug Harbor Seafoods in Kenai. Mark Powell, who heads the steering committee for the project, and Bob Merchant, president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association and also a steering committee member, spoke to local fishers about exactly what the project will entail.
Powell told the fishers the plan relies on the idea that inlet sockeye salmon, and inlet salmon in general, are as high or higher in quality than any in the world. That message needs to get to consumers, but for that to happen, Powell said, uniform quality standards must be assured.
"We're going to shoot for as high of quality as we can. A lot of it is starting name brand recognition," Powell said, adding the idea is to make third-party purchasers know the product is one of high quality and consistency.
With the commercial salmon market glutted with cheap, farm raised salmon, many Alaska fishers and processors believe the only way to save the local commercial salmon fishery is to establish the superiority of wild fish over farmed salmon in the minds of consumers. To do that, certain quality guidelines must be established. That's what the branding program will do, Merchant said.
"We're going to tell the market, 'this is what's possible.' It's going to happen everywhere in the state. It's starting to go all over the place, we're laying a lot of the groundwork," Merchant said, noting similar branding plans were already in place or in the works for Copper River, Kodiak, Bristol Bay and Kuskokwim River salmon, among others.
The initial plans call for only sockeye to be used in the project. However, Powell said one of the added benefits of the project is eventually, all inlet salmon could be eligible to receive the brand.
"It brings up the quality of all the fish," he said.
The project is set to begin this season on a limited basis. The first year of the project will be used to establish the strict guidelines and standards fishers and processors will have to follow to ensure the fish is of the highest quality and to begin marketing the salmon. Only fish certified as being "premium" or "grade A" will qualify for the inlet brand.
Powell outlined the brand certification quality standards for the fishers.
According to the specifications Powell handed out at the meeting, for a fish to be certified with the inlet brand, it must be bled after being caught, iced immediately and show no signs of bruising. A fish does not necessarily have to be bled alive, but Powell said that's the standard the group will shoot for.
Powell said he believes once the standards are established, markets for the fish will open up.
"You put our fish against any in the world and we'll compete," he said.
The project received funding to establish the preliminary work from a variety of sources, including the Kenai Peninsula Borough's Economic Development District, the Alaska Manufacturers Association and Surefish Seafood Quality Specialists. Surefish will be responsible for quality control during the project's first year, but eventually quality inspectors will be hired independently, according to Jack Brown, business manager of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Community and Economic Development Division. Brown also sits on the project's steering committee.
"Our intention is to hire local people for inspectors. There's a lot of people here locally that know a lot about how to grade fish," Brown said Friday.
The initial phase also includes marketing the salmon to high-end consumers, he said.
"We'll be hitting the larger seafood forums in places like Boston and New York. We'll do marketing with individual restaurants, chains -- stores that sell organic products. Clearly there's a tremendous advantage to our product. People will want to buy it. We just have to ensure the consistent quality of the product," he said.
Powell said the initial phase won't involve a high-volume fishery. Likely, only a few boats and setnet sites will fish observing the strict quality control measures, mainly during slower fishing periods. And those fishers likely won't see much immediate payoff for doing so, he said.
"Some of the people will have a higher burden."
However, the dividend will be paid after marketers show Outside salmon buyers that Cook Inlet salmon of the highest quality can be counted on, something that hasn't always been a sure thing, according to Merchant.
"Alaska has a bad reputation on the marketplace (for delivering inconsistent product)," he said.
The only way for inlet fishers to establish a niche in the market, Merchant said, is to shake that stereotype.
"Those days are over," he told the group.
If inlet fishers can adhere to a high-quality standard while harvesting the fish, then processors have to process and deliver the salmon to the marketplace. That's why processors also are involved in the salmon branding plan process.
Three area processors have signed on to help with the initial phase of the project. Snug Harbor Seafoods, Deep Creek Custom Packing and Salamatof Seafoods will process the fish once it is iced down after being caught. Initially, the plan calls for 6,000 to 10,000 pounds of salmon to be processed and certified with the inlet brand. That fish will be used by marketers during the winter to try and establish a market for the top-quality salmon. Any additional salmon will be sold by the processors through usual channels.
Merchant said cooperation among all industry groups will be essential for the project to work.
"Vertical cooperation (throughout the industry) is the key. We've got to work together. This is the first step," he said.
However, it seems most people already agree that altering the ways inlet salmon are caught, handled, processed and marketed is the only way the fishery can survive.
"This is the one issue I've seen in all my years where nobody can find anything to gripe about," said Powell.
The next meetings on the Cook Inlet Salmon branding project will be held Saturday and Sunday. Representatives from processors, fishers and Surefish Seafood Quality Specialists will be on hand, and elections for the project's board of directors will be held. Once a board of directors is established, plans will be finalized for the direction the project will take during the upcoming fishing season and in the months to come.
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