Anyone working in the commercial fishing industry can tell you that Alaska's share of the world salmon market isn't want it once was.
From supermarket seafood counters to upscale restaurants around the globe, sales of Alaskan wild-caught salmon are being pummeled by Atlantic salmon produced by farming operations in places like Norway and Chile.
The competition also comes from salmon farmed a lot closer to home. British Columbia's farms now operate at the maximum capacity allowed by law, contributing about $397 million to the economy and employing about 3,400 people, in 2000. To give some perspective, the value paid to fishermen in 2000 from wild salmon harvested in Alaska was about $275 million (ex-vessel value).
B.C. fish farmers now are asking the government for permission to open new farming sites so their industry won't lose any of its share of the ''vital'' U.S. market.
''This is a large and expanding market, and the B.C. industry must grow its exports if it's going to maintain a dominant position in the long term,'' said PricewaterhouseCoopers aquaculture industry analyst Dave Egan, quoted in The Daily News of Prince Rupert.
Notice the language there. The goal isn't to catch up with a marketplace leader (which Alaskan salmon once was). The goal is to maintain an already existing farmed salmon dominance of the U.S. market.
That's food for thought.
To its credit, Alaska and Alaskan fishermen are working diligently to publicize the state's salmon products in the Lower 48, Japan and Europe. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute has a good record of successful retail market and restaurant promotions.
A recent walk through a Wegman's supermarket in the upscale New York town of Pittford illustrates that Alaska salmon can be marketed as being different -- and noticeably better -- than any farmed salmon in the seafood case. The store stocks a variety of salmon products and has chosen to highlight salmon from Alaska's Copper River as a top quality product. The Alaska salmon on display had a much richer color than the pale farmed Atlantic salmon fillets sitting nearby. Atop the refrigerated case was a write-up about the Alaska salmon's excellent quality by Wegman's food writer.
This was only one store, but anyone shopping there for salmon that day got the message loud and clear: For taste and quality, Alaskan salmon can't be beat.
It's a great message. More people should hear it.
Unfortunately, the marketplace is quite sensitive to price and year-round fresh supply, areas in which farmed salmon producers excel and which accounts for the products' explosive growth.
Given the logistics, Alaska's salmon producers find it difficult to compete on the price/fresh supply fronts. But we must compete -- successfully -- if commercial salmon fishing is to remain a way of life and an economic pillar in Alaska's coastal communities.
That's easy to say; difficult to do. There must be many people in Alaska's industry searching for the right combination.
It's a situation that requires Alaska's full attention.
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