CHARLESTON, Ore. - Sitting on his boat, the Dragnet, Loren Dixson had to think back to when his daughter was a baby to remember a time when prices for his salmon were this good.
"Hannah is 17 now," Dixon said, "and it was the year she was born."
Since those high prices in the late 1980s, West Coast salmon fishermen have struggled. A strong El Nino in 1994 depleted food in the ocean, drastically reducing salmon landings. Salmon farms in Chile, Norway and Canada filled the gap, driving down prices as they cranked up production.
But over the past two years, campaigns promoting the health, taste and environmental benefits of ocean-caught salmon have converged with efforts by fishermen to produce a better fish through careful handling. Along with scientific studies on fish contamination and new laws, ocean-caught salmon prices have been pushed back up.
"It's the perfect storm, pardon the pun," said Dalton Hobbs, administrator of the Oregon Department of Agriculture's marketing division, which last month launched its Seafood Oregon advertising campaign.
Accounting for inflation, the $5.50 a pound Oregon fish buyers were paying last week for large chinook, the West Coast's premier commercial species, would have been the equivalent of $3.33 in 1987. That's the year Dixson got $4.50 for one boatload in San Francisco.
"It means I actually expect to do reasonably well this year," said fisherman Scott Boley, who has a fish market in Gold Beach where he was retailing chinook filets for $9.60 a pound.
Prices this week dropped to about $3.50 a pound as the California and Washington fleets hit the water and weather improved, but observers expect them to stay strong all summer.
Fish marketing consultant Howard Johnson of H.M. Johnson & Associates has tracked a slight increase in farmed salmon prices but noted wild prices are up much more. He added the buzz was all wild salmon at this year's International Boston Seafood Show, where Legal Sea Foods, a Boston-based chain of 26 restaurants, announced a new line of wild Alaskan salmon dishes.
Last January, the journal Science published a major study that found increased levels of cancer-causing PCBs in farmed fish over wild fish.
And in 2002, a court ruling required grocery stores to label farmed fish as containing dye to turn the flesh pink. Next fall, federal law requires stores to label fish with the country they come from.
"What we have now is an informed public that wants our product," said Daryl Bogardus, skipper of the Pices, tied up across the dock from Dixson's Dragonet. "Instead of taking a back seat to farmed fish, we're getting the price we should."
Two years ago, chinook dipped below $1 a pound due to the glut of farmed salmon, which account for 60 percent of the world supply.
Laura Anderson, vice president of Local Ocean Seafoods in Newport, has worked with fishermen the past two seasons to handle their fish more carefully to command a higher price. She labels each fish with a photo of the fisherman who caught it.
"I can move as many as I can get," said Anderson. "Plus, there's a lot of competition in the market now. More buyers are coming to Oregon ports to source fish directly."
Last year, EcoTrust, a Portland group that promotes environmentally sustainable economic development, launched its Salmon Nation campaign, calling on seafood lovers to buy ocean-caught fish to protect the environment and promote local economies.
Surveys in Oregon have tracked a steep rise in consumer preference for wild fish, said Eileen Brady, EcoTrust's vice president.
In 2002, when asked what salmon they would choose at the grocery or a restaurant, 29 percent said wild salmon, 26 percent farmed salmon, and 35 percent had no preference, according to the survey done by Riley Research Associates of Portland. This year, 58 percent preferred wild salmon, and 10 percent farmed.
"You throw in the PCBs in salmon, with mad cow, with the Asian bird flu, and you have a customer base that's waking up, searching for a healthier quality alternative, and of course wanting to support the local economy," Brady said.
In the fall, environmental groups took out ads in the New York Times and held demonstrations urging consumers to boycott farmed salmon, arguing they pollute the waterways where they are raised in pens, and are tainted by chemicals, antibiotics and dyes. The study published in Science gave credence to the groups' position.
At Higgins restaurant in Portland, chef Greg Higgins will serve only ocean-caught fish. The price of an entree has risen to $29 a plate.
"People are paying it," said co-owner Paul Mallory. "They don't think twice."
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