ANCHORAGE - When Alaska Peninsula fishermen experimented with sending fresh salmon to Boston last year, they discovered that the most expensive step in the journey was the first.
Moving a sockeye south to Beantown cost 92 cents per pound. Nearly two-thirds of that expense, 60 cents, paid for moving the fish from Sand Point to Anchorage.
Finding a cheaper way to move fresh, wild fish from remote villages to transportation hubs is the subject of a research project by the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, a private nonprofit corporation fueled by federal grants that tries to solve problems in Alaska's commercial fishing industry.
As Alaska fishermen try to grow the salmon market in the United States, executive director Marc Jones said, the foundation will consider a host of solutions to lowering the price of shipping salmon.
One possibility: a special "salmon bus," an aircraft devoted exclusively to moving fish at peak harvests.
With overseas demand down and heavy competition from farmed salmon, Jones and others in Alaska's fishing industry believe the best hope for improved salmon sales is within America's borders. However, America has told Alaska it wants its fish delivered fresh, Jones said.
"Even if we succeed, at least initially, we're talking about a very small quantity of the catch that will be involved with this sort of thing," he said.
Delivering fresh fish, however, is a key to long-term market development.
"What we want you to do is develop a good taste for wild fish from Alaska," Jones said. "And after that we're going to show you that fresh frozen works too."
Delivering wild fish from remote locations presents formidable challenges.
"When it shows up is on its schedule, not your schedule," Jones said, in numbers that cannot always be predicted accurately, and in weather that grounds airplanes.
He contrasts flying out of Emmonak with moving farmed Atlantic salmon from Chile. Fish farmers know months in advance how many fish they will need to pluck out of their nets. They can sign contracts for the exact number of containers they need. They can drive fish to a major transportation hub, Santiago.
"We don't have some of those advantages here," he said.
Inclement weather and other cargo often conspire to keep Alaska's wild salmon grounded.
"Is the plane going to come due to weather or other circumstance?" Jones asked. "If the plane comes, are you sure your fish is going to get on board?"
Shipping fish has ranked third for some airlines behind moving passengers and other freight. The risk is huge for perishable fish.
"Every day it doesn't fly is another day it can't be on display," Jones said.
Wholesalers aren't the only ones with risk. At other end of the fish pipeline are retailers who invest money in advertising.
"If your fish doesn't arrive, they're out that," Jones said. "There's no recovering it."
Armed with more than $300,000 from a federal grant, the foundation this year will survey Alaska's fishing ports to determine what is needed to move fresh fish.
A fishing village may need a longer runway or navigation aids to allow a wider range of aircraft to land and take off, Jones said. Facilities to make ice available may help some communities.
At Sand Point, Jones said, fishermen learned the hard way that they lacked refrigeration. Fresh fish awaiting shipment had to move to freezers when a plane didn't show up.
Some work may focus on developing better containers and portable cold storage. Fishermen mostly use the same plastic foam wet boxes they've been using for 25 years, Jones said. Farm fish producers have tried injecting fish with salt and water solutions, much like pork producers treat ham.
"It has the additional benefit of making it much more idiot-proof when you cook it because it stays moist," he said of ham.
One alternative might be shipping fish in an inert atmosphere.
"If you've removed the oxygen from the environment that you're shipping the fish in, it means there's far less bacteria growth in the fish."
The foundation also is looking at ways to augment commercial carrier air service. Chartering aircraft dedicated to hauling fresh fish - the salmon bus idea - is a strong possibility.
The foundation's charter calls for it to pursue concepts that have promise but carry high risk. Jones said there is no guarantee the foundation will find an answer that works.
"Ultimately you have to recoup that," he said of the expense. "Where is the break point in the financial picture of this?"
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