Representatives of the Cook Inlet Salmon Brand Inc. want the 3-year-old Kenai Wild salmon branding project to stay cool.
"We needed a lot more ice this year," CISB President Mark Powell said earlier this month.
Kenai Wild branded fish must be bled and iced almost immediately after being pulled from the water in order to ensure they meet strict quality guidelines. Powell said the program could have processed a great deal more fish this season if there had been enough ice available to local commercial fishers.
Next season, it's likely the icing problem will be solved. CISB recently received a $725,000 grant from the Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development that will be used to increase the amount of available ice by 80 tons per day. Although the specifics of where the ice will be made have yet to be ironed out, Powell said he's confident that by next summer, the additional ice will be available.
"The increasing demand for ice for Kenai Wild will make it imperative that our icing program is online next year," he said.
The demand for ice is so great because the idea of producing high quality, premium salmon for markets in the Lower 48 is starting to catch on with local fishers. Although the numbers still are not finalized, CISB Executive Director Sylvia Beaudoin said the amount of branded fish continues to rise.
"We produced 37 percent more round weight this year," Beaudoin said.
That equates to about 360,000 pounds of salmon. Although that's still not the majority of Upper Cook Inlet fish (almost 5 million sockeye were harvested this summer), it is a good number, considering premium fish can fetch much higher prices on the open market.
Getting higher prices for local fish is the whole reason Kenai Wild was started. At the time, many fishers were skeptical about changing the way they handled their fish after catching them. But as the program continues to show promise, more and more fishers are getting involved.
"There are over 100 permit holders in the program and over 200 crew members," Powell said.
Powell said fishers are starting to realize that without making changes, the inlet's commercial fishery is in serious trouble.
"It's the old way of doing business that has to stop," Powell said.
Carl Wagoner is a commercial setnetter who participated in the program this summer. He said he believes that with time, fishers like himself will be able to bleed and ice nearly all the fish they catch each summer.
"You can do almost all of it if you're set up right," he said.
However, it's not just getting fishers to bleed and ice their fish. Powell said another hurdle the branding program must overcome is a lack of processing capability by local canneries. Because special care must be taken with branded fish, old canning lines aren't sufficient for producing a premium cut of fish.
"What we need is additional processing infrastructure," Powell said.
Some canneries like Pacific Salmon have made commitments to increase the amount of Kenai Wild fish they'll process. But in the hectic business of commercial fishing, quantity has always won out over quality. In order for that to change, CISB believes the state also must change the way it manages the commercial fishing industry.
Instead of having to fish in narrow windows of time and later in the run when the rivers have reached their escapement Wagoner said he would like to see the state allow commercial fishers more freedom to fish during the early and middle part of the sockeye run.
"The Board of Fish is afraid of us catching too many fish during the middle of the run," he said.
However, Wagoner pointed out that this year, both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers exceeded their escapement goals.
"The management plan just doesn't work," he said.
Despite the challenges of having to overcome old ways of thinking, limited processing capabilities and fish politics, Powell said the future of Kenai Wild is bright. As more and more consumers get a taste for premium Cook Inlet fish, he said he's confident that the program could help bring renewed profitability to commercial salmon fishing in Cook Inlet.
"By preserving the quality of the fish at the point of capture, the markets are there," Powell said.
Beaudoin agreed. She said that the success of the Kenai Wild program could be the beginning of a revitalization of the industry.
"A rising tide lifts all boats," she said.
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