Traveling halfway around the world to see it first hand, delegates from the Kenai Peninsula agree that fish farming isn't for Alaska. However, Chile, a major supplier of seafood to world markets, offered lessons in consistency and quality control.
"There's always going to be discussion about whether we should remove the ban on fish farming in Alaska," said Rep. Drew Scalzi, R-Homer. "I say no, but certainly I'm (not) objective. If someone had a plan that addressed all the concerns Alaskans have about farming, I would be willing to listen."
Scalzi said his goal for participating in the World Trade Center Alaska's recent trip to Chile, entitled "Supply Chain and Food Distribution in Chile: From Harvest to Customer," was to find out for himself if fish farming is a viable industry.
"Everything I saw was very positive," Scalzi said, specifically pointing to environmental concerns the Chileans have addressed.
On the labor side, however, Scalzi drew a picture of a low-wage labor force, with employees working 48-hour weeks and making between $250 and $350 a month.
While Chile lacks natural fish runs, Scalzi said farming would place Alaska's natural salmon runs in jeopardy. Also, Chile inoculates farmed fish to increase their resiliency, something not permitted in Alaska hatcheries.
"There are a lot of reasons that, unless addressed up front, we shouldn't take the ban away," Scalzi said. "Above all is whether farming would benefit the state of Alaska or just a few people."
Where Chile shines, however, is in quality and consistency of product.
"That's probably their strongest asset," he said. "We need to take a lesson from them."
Gary Fandrei, director of the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, echoed Scalzi's observations about quality control.
"Most of what I saw involved the handling of fish to the customers' specifications," Fandrei said. "You have to listen to what the customer wants and then give them what they're looking for. They've done that down there. I think that's why they've been successful in building this industry in a relatively short time period."
As an example, Fandrei pointed to the speed with which salmon are harvested. Live fish are removed from pens and, after traveling through a pipe into a series of cooling tanks, their gills are slit.
"As soon as they're dead, they go into a processing plant," Fandrei said. "Within four hours of coming out of the pen, fish are packaged and ready for shipping."
Preparation for entering the Chilean fishing industry begins at an early age, as witnessed at a vocational school. Teen-age students spend the final two years of a four-year program focusing on a technical program of their choice, including fishing.
Fandrei saw students studying navigation, engine repair and net mending.
"That tells you there's a whole different attitude toward the industry than what we have in this country," Fandrei said.
Also noteworthy was the Chileans' familiarity with Alaska's fishing industry.
"They've been up here and looked it," he said. "They know the problems we're confronted with. They know what their markets are and what their competition is."
After tasting farmed salmon, Fandrei reported that "it just didn't have a very good taste."
However, he discovered that high quality fish were shipped out of the country, leaving the leftovers for Chile's domestic market.
"The preparation was good, but the meat itself was definitely not the same quality (as wild salmon)," he said. "The meat was just a little bit off."
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley also made the eight-day trip. His photos reflect a modern country of towering buildings and streets where donkey-led carts provide transportation.
"But you walk into a processing plant and it far surpasses what we have on the Kenai Peninsula," Bagley said, noting that Chile has invested well in a product that accounts for 7 percent of its exports.
His camera documented the hygienic environment of fish processing plants, including a requirement that employees and visitors don face masks and protective clothing, scrub their hands and wash their boots. Iced salmon are placed on end in totes, rather than stacked.
"There's a lot of things we can do differently," Bagley said.
With an eye toward other similarities between the two countries, Bagley saw a wood chip pile ready for shipping. Providing a backdrop to the Yan Kee Way fishing resort visited by the group was the snow-covered Volcan Orsono, described in Chilean literature as "one of the most beautiful volcanic cones in the world." Brochures from the area advertised "world class fishing."
Bagley will share highlights of the trip to Chile at this weekend's economic outlook forum. (See story, page A-1.)
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