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Fish branding moves forward

Committee stresses importance of quality Cook Inlet product

Posted: Tuesday, November 27, 2001

The search is on for a name to give Cook Inlet seafood. The Cook Inlet brand steering committee hopes to have a trademarked name for salmon and eventually other seafood harvested here by the second quarter of 2002.

Steering committee chair Mark Powell said it is premature to bandy about names, as the committee is just beginning to address that issue.

"What we have thought about is going to the schools and let children submit ideas," he said.

The ideal name will be locally recognized as well as be easily marketed and remembered by consumers throughout the nation.

But a name for Cook Inlet fish is only the tip of the iceberg. It's what lies behind that name that will guarantee success: quality.

"Quality control will be measured from the point of harvest through icing and transportation and into the plants," Powell said. "And each lot that goes to market will be tested to make sure its quality is at a high level. This is all done by independent third-party inspectors."

He said the company Sure Fish, a Seattle-based company that has been working with fishers in the Aleutians, East Coast and Asia, initially will be contracted to provide the quality control.

Paying better attention to quality initially will be a burden on fishers and processors alike. They will have to sort their fish by grade, bleed them as soon as possible, layer them in ice without packing too many on top of one another and get the fish to the processor as soon as possible.

"The main thing is icing. The faster you ice the fish upon their demise, the less breakdown inside the fish you get," said Kalifornsky Beach setnetter Paul Shadura. "Doing this will provide for better flesh and better flavor."

He said that ultimately, processing a fish should be done before it goes stiff through rigor mortis.

He said setnetters and gillnetters alike probably will have to sort their fish as they pull them out of the net and then cut their gills and let them bleed out in refrigerated sea water before being layered in ice.

The committee envisions two grades of fish to be sold under the brand name they eventually come up with -- premium and grade A. A premium fish will be bled at harvest. The salmon will be sold fresh and fresh-frozen in several different forms, including headed and gutted, portioned fillets and full fillets.

"And it's possible for this to expand to not only sockeye, but halibut and other bottom fish," Powell said. "The possibilities are endless if we get the initial plan off the ground and functional."

He said the committee's hope is to have 80 percent of Cook Inlet seafood sold under the branded label.

"The possibility is there for very high volumes of the two grades," he said. "Copper River has had success with both premium and grade A."

He said there is a high probability of success for a Cook Inlet brand of salmon because the area is well-known and has easy access to national and international transportation.

The goal of creating a high-quality brand named for Cook Inlet seafood is to increase the price per fish. Cook Inlet fishers have been plagued by a combination of poor runs, low prices and decreased fishing opportunity, which has forced processing plants to close and some people to abandon fishing altogether.

There are some inherent dangers to culling all the premium and No. 1 fish from the catch. It could mean the large fish buyers will wind up with more No. 2s and 3s.

"There's some problem when you do this, but the hope is the branding will raise the broad bar," Shadura said.

He said that since much of the damage to a fish comes after the time it hits the net, much of the damage can be reduced.

"We hope that a No. 3 fish won't be as evident and be more like 2s and 1s," he said. "We would like to see the whole industry join in."

There will be additional costs associated with the extra-special handling, and Shadura said the reward will be a couple of years down the road.

"Probably a lot of fishermen will take that into consideration before they enter the program," he said. "The whole process will have to be supported for the first couple of years."

The Kenai Peninsula Borough's Department of Community and Economic Development is seeking grant funds from several different sources to fund the program for three to five years.

"This is a rough estimate, but we're looking at between $300,000 to $500,000 per year," said Jack Brown, director of the DCED.

The money will be used for marketing, quality control, start-up costs for fishers and processors and for education on how to best handle the fish.

Powell said after three years or so, the brand name should be established and the program well under way. At that point, targeted marketing will be the responsibility of the processors, who will license the brand name from the nonprofit corporation that will own it.

So far, the Kenai Peninsula Borough has contributed $95,000 -- $30,000 from Mayor Dale Bagley's office for a feasibility study and $65,000 to do testing and quality-control studies.

The nonprofit that controls the brand name and oversees the contracted quality control will be made up of three representatives from the processing industry: two driftnetters, two setnetters, one seiner and a designee made by the borough mayor.

Brown said he hopes to have an ordinance introduced to the borough assembly Jan. 8 outlining the funding plan and asking for matching funds.

"In general, we see four places for potential funding," he said. "The Alaska Manufacturing Associa-tion, state Department of Com-munity and Economic Develop-ment grants, industry support and we'll be looking to the borough for support."



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