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Salmon fishermen and processors, seafood marketers and industry analysts generally agree that something must be done to improve the quality of wild Alaska salmon as it is delivered to the market. The problem is figuring out how to do it.
The House Fisheries Committee heard testimony Friday on a bill that would require fishermen to chill their fish between harvest and delivery, but it appears unlikely that bill will advance.
Rep. Paul Seaton, a Homer Republican and chairman of the committee, said the committee is concerned the bill is too vague and doesn't adequately address enforcement or the cost fishermen would incur. He said the committee would hold onto the bill and try to rework it.
The bill would task the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute with developing mandatory standards for chilling and prompt delivery of salmon. It also would establish the Legislature's intent to seek grants, loans and technical assistance to offset the cost to the fishing fleet.
But without any formal funding initiative to accompany it, many say the measure can't pass.
"This would be very costly for everyone involved," said Chris Garcia, a fisherman from Kenai. "The intent of this bill isn't to kill the industry, but I think that's what it does."
The bill is one of 14 suggested by the Joint Legislative Salmon Industry Task Force, which was convened to come up with solutions to the problems plaguing the industry.
In their sponsor statement, task force members wrote that they recognize the challenges the bill poses to fishermen.
"The vastness of coastal Alaska, the lack of infrastructure, the dramatic decline in the overall value of salmon, and the costs associated with a mandatory program are all causes for concern," the sponsor statement reads.
Sen. Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican and task force vice chairman, told legislators during Friday's hearing that chilling was critically important to fish quality.
"If we are going to compete with farmed fish, we've got to make sure our product is the highest quality it can possibly be," he said. "We may have to do this over a matter of years."
Stevens said most fishermen in Southeast already are chilling their catch, and it wouldn't be too difficult to make it mandatory for them within a year. But he said fishermen further west lack the infrastructure necessary for chilling.
"We can't require it throughout the state right now," he said.
Greg Fisk, a fisheries development specialist with the Department of Community and Economic Development, said the chilling standard should be looked at as a goal. He said federal funds might help defray fishermen's costs.
Seaton said it's possible the bill may be sent back to the salmon task force for reworking and submission during a later session.
The task force was set to expire March 1 of this year, but a bill that has passed the House and is in the Senate would extend its life to March 1, 2005.
The House voted Friday to let the Joint Legislative Salmon Industry Task Force keep working for another year. House Concurrent Resolution 6 now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Seaton said the Fisheries Committee also may decide to issue a resolution asking legislators to declare that the logistical problems with the chilling bill are an important issue that deserves attention.
"I'm not killing the bill," he said. "I just want to make sure we have the answers before we go forward."
Masha Herbst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.