"My bologna has a first name. It's O-S-C-A-R ..."
This familiar line from a 1970s marketing campaign for Oscar Mayer cold cuts was one many found hard to ignore. This week begins the earliest stages of a marketing campaign that several Cook Inlet commercial fishers, fish processors and Kenai Peninsula Borough officials hope eventually will have domestic seafood purveyors touting "K-E-N-A-I W-I-L-D" on the tips of their tongues.
All parties concerned are banking on a good response to the inaugural push to produce and promote the "Kenai Wild" brand of Cook Inlet sockeye salmon -- a seal of approval which will distinguish inspected and certified high quality wild fish. The $400,000 price tag on the five-year program to develop the brand is a reflection of high hopes stakeholders have that the seafood market will respond favorably.
The goal, said commercial fisher and board president of the non-profit Cook Inlet Salmon Brand Inc. Mark Powell, is to gain a stronger foothold in a domestic seafood market currently dominated by farmed salmon.
"We actually want it to do more than compete," he said. "We believe our fish is better than farmed fish."
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley initiated the program last year. Powell said inconsistent quality and inconsistent availability have plagued commercial salmon fishing for some time, and this was an opportunity to exact some change.
The commercial fishing season opens Thursday morning for all Cook Inlet area fisheries, except the Kenai East Foreland sections above the Blanchard Line (midway between the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers) to Boulder point. The East Foreland sections will be open July 8.
North Kenai driftnet fisher Roger Harris has shipped much of his catches from previous years to Canada. He is participating in the project and said he expects to find buyers without crossing the border.
"It gives us a domestic market, which we don't have right now," he said.
Ninilchik setnetter Richard Person hopes the program will improve prices for inlet salmon.
"Hopefully, the effect is a more stable, stronger salmon price," he said.
Associating the brand name with consistently well-cared-for meat will put Alaska fish on an even playing field with farmed salmon, said commercial fisher and United Cook Inlet Drift Association President Bob Merchant.
"At least our consultants would say that farmed salmon have set the bar," he said. "We're trying to see where wild salmon fit with the bar as far as the market is concerned. Their (salmon farms') quality control is something we're trying to get as close to as we can."
To do this, Cook Inlet Salmon Brand enlisted the services of Seattle-based seafood quality control consulting firm Surefish Seafood Quality Specialists to develop quality standards for the Kenai Wild stamp, inspect the initial batch of production and train local inspectors to continue quality control over the five years of the project.
Borough Business Development Manager Jack Brown said the borough has given the project $168,000. Alaska Manufacturers Association gave $112,000 and the state Department of Community and Economic Development another $120,000. Another $95,000 is in the state budget awaiting approval from Gov. Tony Knowles, Brown said.
Most of the funds will be spent on teaching fishers and plant and tender operators about quality control and handling procedures, Brown said.
Three Surefish inspectors will arrive today to work with two local inspectors who will study the Surefish quality control methods through early August. Brown said the inspectors will work "from the point of process" overseeing harvest sites and processing locations at any one of the three plants -- Snug Harbor Seafoods, Deep Creek Custom Packing and Salamatof Seafoods.
Brown said this first year of the pilot, the project intends to produce between 10,000 and 12,000 pounds of headed and gutted fillets. This number, he said, will gradually increase as the pilot program progresses.
In order to receive the premium branding stamp, fish have to be bled alive and immediately placed on ice. Both driftnet fishers and setnetters will participate in the program. Setnetters, who find fewer live fish in their gillnets, may have more of a challenge meeting those standards, said Brown.
Setnetter Brent Johnson said exposure of fish to the elements also comes into factor for some setnetters.
"This will be quite a deal, because some carry their fish in open skiffs," he said.
Merchant, also a Cook Inlet Salmon Brand board member, said meeting these branding standards would require more work, in many cases, that may not immediately see a financial return.
"Normally on a drift boat, there are two people," he said. "There's an extra step now. To really do this program right, we should have a third person who will handle fish, ice them, bleed them, etc."
Kenai fish processing company Snug Harbor Seafood plans to produce 100,000 pounds of salmon for branding. Merchant said this is a reasonable goal.
"Since (inspectors) are already in the plant, if there are more fish that qualify, why not have the brand placed on them as well?" he said.
Snug Harbor owner Paul Dale said stringent standards will apply for processing plants, as well. There are guidelines regarding maximum amount of weight loaded onto a truck or a fish tote, temperature points that have to be met and maintained during transit to processing plants and time limits on how long it takes to transfer, he said. He also said strict grading standards will be placed on color loss, small knife cuts and bone protrusion.
"The expectation is that fish are on a fast track from the point of delivery to their final destination," Dale said. "We would be expected to document transit, temperature and timing for each load of fish that we would buy, so that Surefish would be able to say with some certainty that these fish are special. If you fail in any respect, we can't put the Kenai Wild sticker on the box."
But he said he expects the regulations and the extra care to be worth the effort.
"We're hopeful that a higher percentage of purchase price will come from this," Dale said. "That's the design of the program."
Driftnet fisher Harris said he looks forward to all Cook Inlet fishers benefiting from the branding project.
"Even though this is a pilot program, it will bring the overall quality of the fish in Cook Inlet up."
Powell said beyond focusing on just marketing inlet salmon, the program expects to teach fishers, net tenders and processors across Alaska the best way to handle fish, to produce the highest quality and reestablish a demand for Alaska salmon.
"Our objective is to benefit the entire salmon industry," he said.
Nancy Pounds, assistant editor for the Alaska Journal of Commerce, contributed to this story.
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