Salmon branding program helps establish learning curve

Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2002

KENAI (AP) -- In its first year, the Cook Inlet Salmon Branding program helped establish a learning curve for program officials.

''It was a tremendous success in terms of identifying what it's going to take to improve the commercial salmon industry,'' Kenai Peninsula Borough Business Development Manager Jack Brown said Tuesday.

But program 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 costs until grant monies totaling $231,000 could find their way back to program coffers.

Powell 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, but the response through the 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 the slightly less perfect ''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 education is crucial.

''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.''

The future of the program's success -- apart from finding more funding to keep it going -- rests 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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