New funds to keep branding program 'Wild'

Posted: Thursday, August 14, 2003

The Cook Inlet Salmon Branding Project is set to tap federal and private-industry grant money that will allow the year-old Kenai Wild program to add more fishers and inspectors to the ranks of those committed to delivering a better seafood product to high-end niche markets, a move aimed at revitalizing the sagging inlet salmon industry.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly last week introduced Ordinance 2003-19-08 appropriating $359,000 to the Kenai Wild program, money enough to help fund operations for the next three years, according to Jack Brown, Kenai Peninsula Borough business development manager.

That money represents a portion of the borough's share of the $7 million the state of Alaska recently received in federal salmon disaster relief aimed at helping the struggling economies of 63 coastal communities.

A separate measure, Ordinance 2003-19-09, would appropriate a $94,000 grant from the Alaska Manufacturers' Association, a nonprofit organization that assists start-up Alaska manufacturing companies. That money will help pay the cost of Kenai Wild seafood inspections in its quality assurance program.

Ordinance 2003-19-08 is scheduled for a public hearing at the assembly meeting Sept. 2.

Ordinance 2003-19-09, however, is on a fast track and will get a hearing and a final vote at the meeting Tuesday night.

According to Brown, the manufacturers' grant would allow reimbursement of costs incurred by the borough since April of this year. Quick approval of the appropriations measure will hasten the ability to pay those bills and help the administration meet grant-reporting requirements, Brown said.

A grant of nearly $400,000 obtained through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in May could be used to cover those costs, but because the manufacturers' grant is restricted only to quality control costs, it is preferable to charge those costs to that grant instead, Brown said.

Under the quality-assurance program, fishers and processors are trained to handle fish so they sustain less flesh damage, thus raising their high-end marketability. Inspections assure that Kenai Wild fish meet strict program standards, Brown said.

As for the $359,000 in federal money, those funds will be targeted at the direct costs of expanding the scope of the Cook Inlet Salmon Branding Project to include more fishers and processors and to broaden public awareness of the Kenai Wild branded salmon, Brown said in a memo to the assembly. That would include the cost of paying a program manager, hiring and training local inspectors, renting office space and marketing the Kenai Wild brand, he said.

The salmon-branding project was launched, in part, as a response to the worldwide growth of the salmon farming industry. It is thought that if Cook Inlet salmon can be handled and processed more delicately, promoting the wild-caught nature of inlet salmon may develop a niche market.

The effort to inform potential buyers may be bearing fruit. The Kenai Wild brand recently earned national recognition from the National Association of Counties, which awarded the borough its 2003 Achievement Award.

Statistically, things are looking up, as well.

"This year, our goal was to inspect 200,000 pounds of fish and certify 80,000 pounds," Brown said. "We actually inspected over 261,000 pounds and certified over 108,000 pounds."

That's up from the 23,000 pounds certified in the first year, he said.

"We expect a dramatic increase next year," he added.

As yet, no goals have been set for the 2004 season.

Meanwhile, the project is busy developing domestic markets from the east to the west coast.

"All of Alaska salmon only comprises about 3 percent of the domestic market," Brown said. "There's a huge growth potential in the domestic market."

As the demand grows, so must the ability of the processors to meet that demand.

"One of the most important things is that our participating processors have come a long way into becoming self-certified," he said, meaning they are developing internal quality control procedures that meet Kenai Wild requirements. "Once they are (certified), they can really crank up the processing."

So far, the project has contracts with four peninsula processors who have agreed to meet the Kenai Wild standards: Deep Creek Packing Inc., Ocean Beauty Seafoods Inc., Snug Harbor Seafoods and Salamatof Seafoods Inc.

Brown said Kenai Wild hopes to add more processors and fishers in the near future and is looking to expand into the Homer area next year. He said the program is negotiating with Coal Point Trading Company, The Fish Factory and talking with a cooperative called Kachemak Bay Salmon Producers.

While its focus today is primarily on the domestic market, eventually the Cook Inlet Salmon Branding Project hopes to be able to deliver product to markets worldwide.

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