Fishermen unite to create regional brands, revive sagging salmon sales

Posted: Monday, March 03, 2003

ANCHORAGE - In the new world of Alaska regional seafood marketing, sockeye salmon will be on ice seconds after being plucked from the sea. They'll be coddled like newborns to prevent bruising.

And they'll have brand names that remind customers of where they come from: Aleutia. Kenai Wild. Copper River. Kodiak.

Desperate to revive sales that have tanked because of sluggish foreign economies and competition from farmed fish, some Alaska salmon fishermen are banding together to create regional brands for customers willing to pay a premium for fresh, wild fish.

"The whole idea of the project is to develop a situation where the fishermen in that region have a long-term relationship with a specific group of customers," said Marc Jones, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, which helped launch the Aleutia brand with fishermen in the Aleutians East Borough.

Along with names that fishermen hope will catch on, the newest brands sport third-party inspection to ensure quality.

"Otherwise, you're just talking about a cute sticker," Jones said.

Alaska fishermen have not always had to market so hard.

In the early 1980s, Alaska supplied nearly half the world's salmon. Demand gave rise to fish farms in Norway, Canada and Chile. Owners of pen-reared Atlantic salmon began delivering fresh fish any time of year, in any size fillet desired by restaurant chefs or grocers. And consumers didn't seem to care whether their fish grew up eating pellets.

In 2000, Alaska supplied just 19 percent of world's salmon.

The state has been slow to react. Legislators now are talking about changes in a state-regulated fishing system designed to maximize the number of people fishing, which include built-in inefficiencies such as limits on the size of fishing boats.

The state's official marketing arm, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, is prohibited from promoting a particular region, company or fisherman's catch. Instead, it has made its research and quality standard resources available to regional marketers, said Ray Riutta, executive director.

The first region to push a brand was Cordova at the southeast end of Prince William Sound, a few miles from the salmon-rich Copper River.

The area established a niche market during the past 25 years by promoting itself as Alaska's first major salmon run. After the long winter, the first catch of Copper River kings and sockeye command premium prices as they're whisked off boats and jetted to Seattle and other markets.

Alaskans launched two other regional brands last year.

Cook Inlet fishermen caught salmon for the Kenai Wild label. With help from the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the Alaska Manufacturers Association and the state, Cook Inlet Salmon Brand Inc. is planning a five-year marketing program.

Farther west, fishermen at the tip of the Alaska Peninsula and the start of the Aleutian Islands launched Aleutia brand.

Aleutia fishermen want to take advantage of one of Alaska's latest runs of sockeye, delivering fresh fish in September when most other fishermen have hung up their nets.

To kick off the program, the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, backed by federal grants, last fall bought sockeye graded out as premium for 95 cents per pound, more than double the 45-cent going rate.

Kenai Wild and Aleutia promoters hired private third-party inspectors from Seattle to certify the quality of fish. Before any were caught, the inspectors trained fishermen to handle them to meet the industry's highest standards.

Trident Seafoods custom processed Aleutia fish at Sand Point in the Aleutians. To be graded premium, fish had to meet standards set by buyers: fish bled while they were still alive, immediate icing, gently handling to avoid bruising and scale loss. Salmon had to be of good, red color - the easiest requirement for wild Alaska sockeye. Fillets had to be free of cuts inflicted by nets or sea lions.

The foundation hoped to buy 100,000 pounds of sockeye. A small run resulted in the foundation purchasing just 15,000 pounds, Jones said.

The smaller amount may have been a blessing in disguise as logistics could be worked out without being overwhelmed by the higher volume of fish. Among the challenges: Everyone who touches the fish - fishermen, processors, transporters, wholesalers and marketers - must be committed to maintaining the high standards for a highly perishable product. It doesn't help that each component is a separate business.

"Someone's got to keep them all in their traces," Jones said.

Another challenge is moving fresh fish quickly at a reasonable expense. It cost 92 cents per pound to transport salmon from Sand Point to Boston last year, Jones said. A whopping 60 cents of that involved moving the fish from Sand Point to Anchorage.

Mark Powell, president of Cook Inlet Salmon Branding, said the first year of the Kenai Wild project showed that many more fish than originally thought possible can qualify as premium grade if fishermen adhere to handling standards.

Webber of Cordova applauds the marketing efforts in other regions and expects it to be a growth area for Alaska fishermen.

"I'm glad to see the rest of the state wants to step up to the quality plate," Webber said.

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