U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens wants to convene a salmon summit this spring to look for ways to aid an industry hit hard by a glut in cheaper farm-raised fish.
Stevens said in his annual speech to a joint session of the Legislature that he will work on federal changes to allow labeling of farm-raised and wild salmon in supermarkets.
But, he said, long-term structural changes are needed to help the industry survive. A summit would allow leaders to devise a plan to aid the state's largest private-sector employer, Stevens said.
"Unless there is a bold action taken, it may be too late to turn the tide. And if we don't, our fishing industry is going to collapse," said Stevens, an Alaska Republican.
As many as half of the state's salmon fishermen have lost money and Native fishermen who depend on food are going hungry, Stevens said.
The overabundance of farm-raised salmon from Chile, Norway, Scotland, Canada and some American states have driven wild salmon prices down.
Bristol Bay fishermen received about 40 cents a pound for their catch last summer - the lowest price since 1975 - prompting Gov. Tony Knowles to declare western Alaska's salmon fisheries a disaster area.
Stevens noted a fishing disaster has occurred nearly every year since 1994 and Congress has provided $100 million in that time for relief.
Stevens said he will work on measures to allow wild salmon to be considered organic food and to label farm-raised and foreign salmon in supermarkets.
Stevens said he has also initiated a new pilot program to provide salmon insurance, similar to the federal crop insurance program, and a measure to add seafood to the agricultural marketing service. Gov. Tony Knowles also proposed $10 million to market Alaska salmon through the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and the state Department of Community and Economic Development. Its fate before the Legislature remains unclear.
Stevens praised the state Board of Fisheries' recent decision to approve a Chignik salmon fishery cooperative, calling it the type of creative thinking needed to help the industry survive.
Sue Aspelund, executive director of the Cordova District Fishermen United, said she was encouraged by Stevens' comments. But fishermen are generally skeptical of more study, she said.
"We've failed to move from talk to action in previous summits," Aspelund said.
High energy and shipping costs have strained commercial fishermen in her area who are still feeling the effects from the Exxon Valdez spill, Aspelund said. About 140 seine boats were active last year, which is about half of what it was before the disaster, she said.
"We can't market our way out, we can't restructure our way out. It definitely has to be a multifaceted approach," Aspelund said.