'Kenai Wild' salmon something residents should brag about

Posted: Friday, July 19, 2002

Imagine a world where the top chefs in five-star restaurants from New York to Paris insist that the only salmon they'll serve is Cook Inlet salmon. Where discriminating connoisseurs reject any other fish than the best, "Kenai Wild," sockeye. Where everywhere you go, Cook Inlet salmon are sought out as delicacies, to be treasured and revered like a fine Bordeaux wine.

A fishy idea? Not at all.

The Cook Inlet salmon branding project is only in its infancy, and like all new ideas, nobody can say where it will go. But the pieces are in place for it to work. Here's why.

The fish that return to Cook Inlet streams are among the healthiest salmon stocks on the planet. They must navigate past innumerable obstacles in order to reach maturity.

Beginning from the time they are eggs, salmon are hunted mercilessly. Trout, bears, other salmon, birds, whales and humans all rely on wild Cook Inlet salmon for their survival. The salmon must fight for years on the high seas, avoid both natural and human-made obstacles, and somehow return each summer to the frigid, glacier-fed streams where they were born.

Now, compare that with the life of a farm-raised fish.

A farmed fish circles a pen its entire life. It feeds on manufactured pellets, which are often enhanced with supplements and dyes. It gets fat, but it gets lazy. If you've ever tasted a farmed fish, you know immediately what's wrong with this picture. A salmon isn't like a pig or a cow. It's worth is derived from the strong muscles it builds while swimming through clean water.

The point is, we've got a product that can certainly be judged as superior to what is currently available on the world market. Now, just how do we get the rest of the world to realize that?

The branding project seeks to show the world what we have to offer. But it takes more than just a few fishers and processors to make it work. It takes everybody who is affected by the commercial fishing industry, which is all of us.

Commercial fishing, like it or not, is a historical cornerstone of the peninsula's economy. Hundreds of peninsula families have, for generations, relied on commercial fishing for their livelihood. In the past decade however, market conditions have forced commercial fishers to reevaluate the way they do business. Gone are the days when fishers could look forward to a summer of heavy nets and fat wallets. But does that mean the industry should be allowed to die? Of course not.

Commercial fishing serves a valuable purpose both economically and biologically. Fisheries managers use commercial fishers to harvest salmon runs to avoid over-escapement in river systems. Commercial fishers aren't taking anything away from people who choose to catch their salmon on a rod and reel, because the stocks are already fully allocated to all user groups. They have a right to those fish, just like everyone else.

But it's getting harder and harder for those fish to be valuable commercially. That's where you come in.

The community has to stand up for our fish, and our fishers. We have to take pride in not only the fact that we have the best sports fishing in the world, but that the fish that return annually to Cook Inlet are the best, healthiest salmon in the world.

Bickering about who is entitled to the fish is useless. Nobody would benefit if the commercial fishing industry totally collapsed; in fact, we'd all lose. Processors, consumers, fishers and the public in general need to talk about the "Kenai Wild" brand wherever they go. They need to demand that grocery stores carry local fish, not farmed, genetically enhanced, pen-raised fish from Chile, Canada or Norway. And everyone needs to rally behind the commercial fishing industry.

All commercial fishers are trying to do is make their traditional way of life worth living again. They're part of our community, and we need to support their effort to return our salmon to prominence. "Kenai Wild" needs to become a source of pride among peninsula residents.

There's nothing fishy about that.

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