It's encouraging to hear that the Kenai Wild salmon program is ramping up efforts to market Cook Inlet salmon across the nation. Our fish are the best in the world, and it's high time our neighbors to the south began treating wild Alaska salmon with the respect it deserves and turning away from the farm-raised, pellet-fed, dye-tainted "salmon" that still dominates the world market.
What the salmon branding program has done over the past few years is commendable. They've succeeded in bringing a number of commercial fishers together for a common cause, earned recognition of their product on a national level and brought hope to an industry that a decade ago was on the brink of extinction.
But although these efforts have served notice that Cook Inlet fishers intend to continue harvesting the best fish in the world for years to come, it may be time to look at some hard facts about how our salmon resource is being harvested.
The reason farmed fish are so popular is because fish raised in a pen are easy to keep an eye on and perfect for processing. Farmed fish are removed from their pens and processed immediately, creating a product that is free from bruising and always fresh.
This is essentially what Kenai Wild fish are. But because Cook Inlet fish are still harvested in traditional gill nets, there is always the certainty that some of the catch will not end up as "premium" grade. In addition, fish caught by drift fishers must sit below deck for hours while they're brought to shore. This means ice is always at a premium, and if enough ice isn't available, the quality of the fish suffers.
Also, because of the narrow fishing windows now granted during the sockeye season, fishers are forced to supply processors with a huge glut of fish in a relatively short period of time basically, the month of July. This means processors aren't able to keep up with the amount of fish brought in, further reducing the amount of fish that can meet the high standards that need to be met in order to qualify for a branding program.
Recently, a trend toward cooperative fishing has begun in Alaska waters. Traditionalists in the industry are certain to fight any move to bring such a fishery to this area, citing the fact that they've been fishing Cook Inlet for generations and don't want to see their lifestyle change.
This is an argument that should not be overlooked. Fishers who want to continue fishing as they have for decades should be allowed to do so.
But the fact remains that Cook Inlet salmon are a resource that is more valuable than the approximately $.60 per-pound commodity price currently offered.
The Kenai Wild program should be lauded for its efforts to raise the overall standard of quality for processed inlet fish. Recent moves by the group to bring more ice to the area are sure to have a continued impact on how much premium fish makes it to Outside restaurants and dinner tables.
However, seemingly-radical ideas that are certain to draw controversy things like sein nets, vaccums that bring fish live to the slime line, fish traps and cooperatives may need a closer look.
Change is hard to accept, but it's a fact of life. Cook Inlet fishers need to begin looking to the future rather than hoping to see a return to the glory days of full nets and high prices something that might never happen.
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