As the salmon conference convenes at the ANB Hall, a major question is what is to become of the Southeast seine fleet. With the loss of Ward's Cove, an estimated 70 seiners are facing the prospect of not having a buyer for their fish. As the summer progresses, the economic loss will snowball and be felt in small communities throughout Southeast that have counted these seiners as some of their best customers, in terms of fuel and other supplies.
A proposal before the state is to allow Russian processors into Alaskan waters to purchase pink salmon, in essence to fill the void left by the loss of Ward's Cove. The pink salmon would then be destined for the Russian domestic market.
Some have questioned whether there really is a domestic Russian market for pinks or whether they would simply be dumped on existing world markets. I would like to address this question.
Over the past 14 years, I have spent more than three living and working in Russia. Throughout this period, I have followed the development of the Russian salmon market. I was in Moscow as recently as December 2002.
I have long felt that Russia is a viable market for Alaskan pink salmon. Pink salmon is a staple of the Russian diet.
In Moscow, there are two choices for the Russian consumer, Atlantic salmon from Norway which sells for $6 a pound or pink salmon from the Russian Far East, which sells on average for $2 a pound. I have rarely if ever seen other species of salmon on sale.
For many common Russians, who make monthly salaries of $150, pink salmon is the only choice and for a fish-loving nation, it is a popular choice. Pink salmon is offered in the following forms for sale: frozen whole in the round, dressed and smoked whole with the head on, or canned.
Russians often prefer a fish in the round because they tend to use the whole fish. Heads and tails are used for soup stock, and the roe is made into caviar.
The Russian Far East is facing a situation in which due to overfishing, there has been a decline in salmon stocks. According to an e-mail I recently received from a friend in Kamchatka, who is involved in the fish business, "In Alaska, there is lots of salmon but no willing processors; in Russia, there is a limited amount of salmon but very many processors. All fishermen and processors, from tiny to huge, complain there is not enough fish left in Russian waters for all of them."
As a result, according to the e-mail, Russian fishermen receive a higher price for their salmon than their Alaska counterparts. The situation in the Russian Far East reinforces what I have long believed.
Alaska is faced with a historic opportunity to increase trade with Russia. By allowing Russian processors into Alaskan waters, the state can step in and extend a hand to the struggling seine fleet in Southeast. Small communities throughout Southeast would stand to benefit.
An estimated 92 million pinks are swimming toward Alaska waters. Without Ward's Cove, many of these pinks are destination unknown, many Alaska seiners are destined to sit at the dock, many Alaska fishing families are destined to suffer.
I strongly urge the new administration to take a look at the Russian market.
Allan Engstrom of Juneau is a professional translator of Russian and a local gallery owner.