A group of commercial fishermen is leaning on the federal government to restrict imports of farmed salmon from Chile into the United States.
At a press conference, United Fishermen of Alaska said the Chilean farmed salmon industry is overproducing pen-reared fish and flooding the U.S. market, underselling fishermen here and driving prices down.
If the federal government doesn't do something, Chilean imports will run Alaska salmon fishermen out of business, said Bruce Schactler, a UFA board member.
"This farmed salmon thing is probably the biggest thing in the whole salmon business that we've got going. It's taking over the world, is what it's doing," said Schactler, speaking for UFA, which represents 24 Alaska fishing groups and 500 fishermen.
The group is pushing for import restrictions through the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which is negotiating a free-trade agreement with Chile - the world's top producer of farmed salmon. UFA also appealed to Gov. Tony Knowles, who wrote a letter to the federal agency in January asking for assurances the U.S. agreement with Chile will not adversely affect the Alaska seafood industry, the second largest employer in the state.
UFA said it doesn't have a formal proposal yet, but some board members suggested the United States should restrict Chilean salmon imports during the commercial salmon season from May through September. Jerry McCune of UFA said that would mean less domestic competition for local fishermen trying to sell their catch fresh during the fishing season.
McCune justified the restrictions, saying the Chileans have a huge economic advantage over U.S. fishermen. The salmon farms are subsidized by the Chilean government, and the industry pays workers low wages - about $500 a month, according to McCune, a UFA board member. Also, fishermen here operate under costly environmental regulations and the Chilean salmon farms do not, he said. It all means Chilean farms can produce salmon at a fraction of the cost borne by U.S. fishermen, McCune said.
"We can't compete against that," McCune said at a Friday press conference. "What they're actually doing is flooding the market and the price continues to go down."
Schactler, the board member, said the federal government also could assess a fee against imported farmed salmon from Chile part of the year an idea endorsed by half a dozen Republican and Democratic state lawmakers in a resolution before the Legislature.
"Two bucks a pound," suggested Schactler. "It's going to cost you more money to bring it in."
It's unclear how UFA's requests will fare at the federal level. A spokesperson at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative did not immediately return phone calls from the Empire.
Wild Alaska salmon dominated world salmon markets 15 years ago, but by 1999 salmon farms were producing double the volume of fish harvested by Alaska fishermen, according to UFA.
"Chile is now the world leader in farmed salmon production and there is enormous potential to continue this growth," UFA wrote in a letter to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.
Kathy Dye can be reached at email@example.com.