Though salmon farms take most of the rap for the plummeting value of wild Alaska salmon, many in the industry say low quality deserves equal blame.
As the state, fishermen and processors search for solutions, the Alaska Manufacturers' Association, known as AKMA, is preparing for the second year of its Alaska salmon certification program.
Begun in 2000 with two Cordova processors, the program seeks to establish consistent quality standards for Alaska salmon, said association President David Arnsdorf.
"The problem with Alaskan salmon has been that they haven't treated the fish that well. Buyers got the Alaskan surprise - you never knew what you'd get until you opened the box," he said.
But if Arnsdorf's program takes off, that could change.
To have their fish marketed as "Alaska Quality Seafood," processors must submit to quality evaluations by a third-party inspector for at least their first year of membership. Salmon is classified in one of four grades: premium, choice, select and standard. Many processors have their own grading systems, in which fish are identified on a number scale - No. 1 is the best, and so forth. But the standards are not uniform across the industry.
"There's that uncertainty. You can buy five different brands, and how do you compare NorQuest No. 1 to brand X, Y or Z No. 1?" said Terry Gardiner, president of Seattle-based NorQuest, which has applied to participate in the program this year.
The AKMA standards are based on voluntary standards developed by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute several years ago. The ASMI standards are premium, A, B and C, but few processors use them, said Seafood Technical Program Director Randy Rice.
Arnsdorf said he wanted to get away from the letter grades because "no one wanted Bs and Cs." His grading system evaluates fish on how they're handled, their odor, appearance of eyes, gills, skin and belly cavity as well as internal defects, physical shape and freezing defects.
According to the specifications, if even one fish in a lot fails the odor test, none of those fish will make the grade. All fish must be chilled. And fish that don't meet the "standard" rating cannot be certified as "Alaska Quality Seafood."
The program certified 96,000 pounds of salmon from nine processors last year, but is starting to grow. Arnsdorf estimates he'll have a dozen or so participating processors this season.
Gardiner said the program won't be a quick fix, but it offers an answer to the consistency problem.
"We think that there's a long-term benefit in being able to show this to customers, that they can rely on the certification process to mean something," he said. "We don't believe it creates any instant result, because you have to go out and prove the quality of your product to customers in the marketplace."
NorQuest plans to participate in the program through its Chignik processor.
The Alaska Quality Seafood program also is attracting new buyers, including Busch's, a high-end Michigan grocery store chain with 12 outlets.
Steve Padley, a former chef and current director of product development and seafood operations for Busch's, said he has not used Alaska salmon consistently during the last seven or eight years because of its notorious inconsistency. His stores have used Canadian farm-raised Atlantic salmon primarily because of its consistency.
"You just can't beat the flavor of Alaskan salmon; there's just nothing like it. But when the fillets would come in torn or damaged or bruised or with blood spots, pretty soon you just would not buy as often and the next thing you know you're not buying at all," Padley said.
But he has been pleased with samples of Alaska Quality Seafood, and is willing to pay for it. His stores sell about 100,000 pounds of farmed salmon per year.
"The understanding that I have is that this is going to cost a little more ... and we're willing to pay that because we know the consistency of quality will be there," he said.
Masha Herbst can be reached at email@example.com.