The mention of "globalization of the economy" may be enough to make one's eyes glaze over, but a recent analysis by an Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development economist drives home how much worldwide changes have affected the state's salmon industry.
The analysis, by Neal Gilbertsen, offers plenty for all Alaskans to ponder. In his conclusion, Gilbertsen writes: "The world salmon industry is only one example of the ongoing process of globalization. While Alaska has suffered an economic shock in this particular case, it has also profited from foreign direct investments in its other industries. Whether golbalization will ultimately be beneficial or detrimental to Alaska remains an open question. Whether it will continue to play an ever-larger role in the state's economy does not. Alaska and Alaskans have little choice but to adapt to this reality and to carve out a place for themselves in this new global economy."
Adapting to change is no easy thing, and it would be easy for Alaska's salmon fishers to think there's no hope for their livelihood in the face of increasing competition from farmed salmon.
While some may argue it's too little too late, programs like the "Kenai Wild" salmon branding program certainly will help Cook Inlet fishers create a niche for themselves in the changing marketplace. Wild salmon is superior to farmed salmon. There's good reason to pay more.
Will having the best product be enough to combat farmed salmon's competitive advantages that include its lower price and its year-round availability? Will the state's salmon industry be able to remake itself sufficiently to make a new name for itself?
It certainly will take lots of hard work, but it's clear that there's very little chance that the good ol' days of the 1970s and '80s when Alaska enjoyed a dominant spot in the world salmon market will ever return. As Gilbertsen writes: "In the course of two decades, Alaska has fallen from world leadership in salmon production to a marginal position." On the other hand, farmed salmon enjoyed a meteoric rise. While farmed salmon accounted for only 1 percent of the world's production in 1980, by 2002, it accounted for three out of every five fish.
Should Alaskans have recognized the handwriting on the wall? Probably. Nevertheless, the reality is when you're No. 1 whether it's in sports or industry it's hard to believe you won't always be at the top.
Spencer Johnson outlines ways to be better prepared for the future in his best-selling book on change, "Who Moved My Cheese?" Johnson identifies "the handwriting on the wall" as:
Adapt to change quickly.
Be ready to change quickly and enjoy it again and again.
That appears to be great advice for Alaska's salmon industry. The hope, of course, is that factors forcing change upon fishers and processors aren't the end of the industry but a new beginning for it.
The salmon fishery isn't the only one hit by change. Gilbertsen writes: "More ominously for Alaska's other fisheries, the company (Marine Harvest) has begun operations involving pen-reared halibut and cod, while others have instigated projects in involving sablefish."
Officials in local and state government are doing their part to help boost the salmon industry. A little help from the federal government also could go a long way in making salmon a staple in school menus as well as a regular part of the diet of U.S. troops. More work needs to be done to convince Americans that wild salmon is preferred for lots of reasons to farmed salmon. The nation needs to import less farmed salmon and eat more Alaska wild salmon. The Kenai Peninsula Borough's resolution aimed at convincing the cruise ship industry to offer its passengers Alaska salmon also is a step in the right direction. A similar effort should target airlines. It would be terrific if an Alaska wild salmon sandwich would be a part of fast-food menus everywhere.
Kenai Mayor John Williams had an idea many years ago that also deserves a fresh look: Create a gourmet frozen food dinner that would incorporate Cook Inlet's wild salmon and produce from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
It's a new day for Alaska's salmon industry. The question is: Do Alaskans have the fortitude and foresight to continue the hard work of reinventing the industry or will they just mourn the days gone by?
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