Inlet fish go 'Wild' for 2nd season

Posted: Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Cook Inlet Salmon Branding Inc. escaped the sophomore jinx in superior fashion, increasing its reach and its production significantly over first-year numbers.

The pilot program that set out last year to exact higher quality on the sockeye salmon sold from Cook Inlet has seen a second year of success, organizers said.

"I am most pleased with the progress that CISB, the plants and fishermen have made this year toward this being a profitable and viable operation," said program president Mark Powell.

CISB Inc. board member Jack Brown said the organization inspected more than 216,000 pounds of whole fish and certified more than 108,000 pounds with the Kenai Wild brand.

Local and contract inspectors scrutinize fish coming out of the inlet and certify them based on the clarity and color of the skin, a cold temperature that preserves the fish and evidence of careful handling that leaves the reds undamaged.

Fish that pass muster receive the Kenai Wild brand of quality and are then marketed to high-end salmon purveyors across the country.

Brown said beyond exceeding the board's goals for the year, the four processing plants participating in the program are on the verge of having enough quality training to certify fish for themselves, which he expects will be a boon for the program.

"That means that they don't need inspectors there all the time, they have their quality control program in place, and everybody there is aware of quality standards we have," Brown said.

"Once they've demonstrated that ability, their volume will increase. I can see us doing a tremendous volume of Kenai Wild next year."

He said branding program inspectors will do random audits at the plants capable of certifying the fish themselves and he expects several of those processors to be self-certified at the beginning of the 2004 fishing season.

Powell agreed with Brown's assessment.

"We feel prepared to go into the market with larger volumes," he said. "We are mature enough to do that now."

CISB Inc. began with seed money from the Kenai Peninsula Borough and has since repaid those dollars, operating from a number of grants. The program pays for a part-time coordinator, three local inspectors and three more inspectors from the Seattle-based seafood quality control firm, SureFish Inc.

Powell said the organization expects to become more self-sufficient, and he expects to move ahead of the program's initial five-year schedule.

He said economic independence is possible next year, driven by increased volumes of fish sales, and he definitely anticipates achieving that goal by 2005.

"In our strategic plan is the formula to charge the plants a fee for the operation of CISB, which would include inspectors and the coordinator," Powell said. "The market interest appears to be there."

He said he appreciates all the hard work people have put into the program, but the benefits to the Cook Inlet commercial fishery can be countless.

"This commercial fishery is in very difficult economic condition," Powell said. "Something like this takes a long time to bring to fruition.

"I can't say it was fun, but I can say I'm optimistic with the fishermen, plants and the borough. The commitment is as strong as ever from all participants. That encourages me."

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