Although it may be a bit premature to say consumers are going crazy for Kenai Wild fish, it's safe to say the premium grade, locally produced sockeye salmon is catching on with consumers in the Lower 48.
On separate marketing trips Outside recently, Cook Inlet Salmon Branding Inc. Executive Director Sylvia Beaudoin and President Mark Powell say they found consumers to be tremendously excited about the possibility of purchasing fresh, wild Alaska salmon from Cook Inlet.
Beaudoin traveled to Ohio, while Powell visited Oregon. Each spoke with representatives from a number of grocery stores and markets about selling Kenai Wild fish in their stores. The results of the trips suggest the three-year-old branding project is on the verge of becoming a success.
"It couldn't have gone better," Beaudoin said. "People just responded to it very well."
The purpose of the trip was not so much to sell a large volume of fish, but to promote the Kenai Wild brand among domestic consumers. To that end, Powell agreed the trips were a resounding success.
"Awareness is what we're trying to do now in order to increase our sales next year," Powell said.
Approximately 108,000 pounds of Kenai Wild fish were certified during this season's salmon run. That's a big increase from the 23,000 pounds initially certified in 2002, the first year the program began operations.
Powell said CISB has had great success moving its 2003 fish, and that consumers Outside were clamoring for more than he could offer with the limited supply available. The demand has been so strong, in fact, that Powell said the biggest challenge for next season may be increasing production to meet what is becoming a rapidly growing demand for the premium salmon.
"We really need to look at our production abilities as one of our next concerns," he said.
In order to do that, Powell said measures may need to be taken in the future that would allow processors greater flexibility in how they receive their fish from commercial fishers. Because of the strict handling guidelines that must be followed for a fish to earn the Kenai Wild brand, Powell said current fishing methods and seasons may need to be restructured in order to allow for greater numbers of fish to be certified as premium grade.
"We are going to have to voice our concerns on management policies that will allow for a higher yield of harvest," Powell said.
Those are words that might rankle some people in the fishing industry reluctant to change the status quo, but Powell said he's not out to make any waves. Instead, he wants Kenai Wild to become a force that will benefit local fishers hoping to see a higher price for their catch.
"We don't want to get into any battles over fisheries," Powell said. "But it's imperative we try to restructure an industry that has been doing business as usual for 50 years."
As for the immediate future, Powell said the plan is to increase by threefold the amount of salmon that's certified for next season. That means that not only will Kenai Wild fish continue to grow as a force in the seafood market, but fishers who have stuck by the program since its beginning may begin to see the first real benefits of the program.
"We should begin seeing a profit beginning next year," Powell said.
That should come as good news to the fishers who have stood by the program through its formative years. It also should come as welcome news to salmon connoisseurs Outside, clamoring to get a taste of more fresh Cook Inlet fish.
"So many people said to me, 'Oh my gosh, I'm never eating farmed fish again,'" Beaudoin said. "They really loved it."
Now that the Kenai Wild program is beginning to see tangible results, Powell stressed it could not have come as far as it has without the support of the community.
"The community deserves a lot of credit for the success we are going to see," he said of the program, which has received funding through a variety of sources, including an initial grant from the Kenai Peninsula Borough. "Now is the time to start saying 'thank you.'"
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