The end of the commercial fishing season means the close of the first year of the Cook Inlet Salmon Branding program. And although branding program officials admit there is still a long way to go in the learning curve, the verdict is in on its performance thus far.
"It was a tremendous success in terms of identifying what it's going to take to improve the commercial salmon industry," said Kenai Peninsula Borough Business Development Manager Jack Brown.
Brown backed up his assessment by reading a message of applause from one of the recipients of salmon stamped with the Kenai Wild seal of certification.
"The sockeye arrived in great condition," the memo read. "They were well boned and pinned. If you can assure that level of quality, you should have a highly marketable product."
In a Tuesday morning branding program board meeting, Brown took time to extend a collective word of appreciation to all participants in the program.
"You guys are heroes in my mind," he said. "You are saving the industry and people not participating owe you a debt of gratitude."
But CISB president and Alaska Salmon Purchasers Inc. owner Mark Powell said that even with the strides made in the program, the Cook Inlet commercial salmon industry was still a ways away from being out of hot water.
"To have stubborn buyers, stubborn fishermen and (a) stubborn government come together. It worked," Powell said. "We had a few fish this year, but this industry is in trouble. Saving the industry, we're not."
The program, envisioned by borough Mayor Dale Bagley, benefited from $305,550 fronted by the borough assembly for start-up until a $93,000 legislative grant and grant monies totaling $231,000 from the state Department of Community and Economic Development and Alaska Manu-facturers Association could find their way back to the CISB's coffers.
Powell talked during the meeting about sending memos to Kenai Peninsula state legislators, borough assembly members and U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens to thank them for their aid in funding the first year of the five-year program and show them the return on their investment.
He said the program was able to exceed the original goal of 20,000 pounds of inspected and certified, high-quality sockeye.
"We learned we can do it and do it at a higher level than we thought," Powell said. "A lot more fish than we expected can be bled in a day. Even from a setnet."
The process of bleeding every fish and icing them immediately was determined as a way to create a consistent level of quality, which would, in theory, give purchasers cause to pay a higher price for fish.
This plan would create more work for fishers and processors alike, to earn the "Premium" grade -- described by one inspector as a perfect fish -- or the secondary Grade "A." But the response through this first season was astounding.
Twelve setnetters and 22 driftnetters contributed nearly 85,000 pounds of fish for certification during the six weeks of fishing, with nearly 63 percent of that catch being scrutinized by a team of two local and two outsourced inspectors. Of that number, 22,395 pounds was certified either "Premium" or "A."
Brown said the program was a success on all three of its general goals. In addition to having twice as much as the projected poundage, CISB was able to teach fishers better care for fish and create community awareness of the move to reverse the industry's downturn.
"We educated over 40 fishermen," he said. "Our goal was to have 25. We exceeded our goal in terms of quality education and program participants. Our goal was to have one processing plant involved. We had four."
In her report to the branding program board, Soldotna inspector Brandy Ohlsen said visibility and education were crucial to the changes anticipated.
"Equally successful was the amount of public interest generated," she said in her report. "There is no direct way to measure levels of correct salmon handling and yet it is the most crucial aspect of a successful program. Great strides were made in this area of quality development.
"Many ideas were developed and implemented, proving that 'where there is a will there is a way,' and icing fish can be accomplished in all situations with a little flexibility and ingenuity."
The next steps for the program will be finding the funds to continue its existence.
On top of what borough funding and some financial contributions from United Cook Inlet Drifters Association and some participating processors provided for this year, Brown said next year's budget will call for Web site development, trade marketing and copyright services, and double the local inspectors, participants and poundage goals.
Beyond that, Powell said the program is looking for ways to be self-sustaining.
"We've talked about standing on our own," he said. "We've got money now. Do we need to move away from the borough yet?"
To that effect, the program applied in July for $399,659 from the Saltonstall Kennedy Grant Program, sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The grant calls for a $40,000 cash match and an in-kind, or nonmonetary, match in the way of administrative time donated from the borough and valued at $35,672. A response is expected later this fall.
Former UCIDA president Bob Merchant hinted at a possible way the collective of Cook Inlet fishers could help the branding program stay afloat.
"Eventually, self-taxing could mean self-funding," Merchant said of board discussion to possibly redirect a portion of the state raw fish tax to the program.
"The more people that are involved in the program, the more money you raise from the tax. It would pay for the inspectors, and that's an extra cost. That, of course is way down the road."
The future of the program's success beyond funding, however, rests firmly in the hands of the Seattle marketing agency -- Seafood Market Developers -- charged with finding consistent buyers for Kenai Wild salmon, Powell said.
"Success or failure is based on whether we can achieve sales to make this thing worthwhile," he said.
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