This editorial appeared in Friday's Anchorage Daily News:
Alaska's Copper River salmon are making their usual spring splash in places where fine fish are sold. It's the most famous example, but not the only one, of how Alaska fishermen can compete against the cheaper, lower-quality farmed fish that has flooded world markets.
Yukon River king salmon have long been prized in Japan for their high fat content. This year, a big chunk of the Yukon River catch will find its way into gourmet markets in the United States.
In Southeast Alaska, fishermen are promoting their products as "Southeast Alaska Rainforest Wild." Salmon carrying that brand will have electronic tracking devices that monitor temperature during shipping to ensure high quality.
Paying attention to quality is definitely a key to success for Alaska salmon fishermen. Gone are the days when fishermen could just toss their catch into an unrefrigerated hold and still expect a big payday for warm, bruised fish. Fresh and fresh-frozen fish, especially fillets, command higher prices. Last year, quality control work and niche marketing efforts clearly paid off. The dockside value of Alaska's salmon catch rose 15 percent.
Selling straight to customers also helps Alaska fishermen boost their income. The number of "catcher-sellers" in Alaska grew 27 percent last year.
A key part of this all-important marketing effort is making sure customers ask for, and get, wild Alaska salmon. That job is a lot easier now. Federal rules that just went into effect last month require retailers to label salmon as farmed or wild and to show the country of origin.
Customers have good reason to ask for Alaska wild. Farmed salmon carry the burden of their industrial, factory-style upbringing. Besides having markedly higher levels of PCBs, farmed fish have to be fed food coloring and antibiotics. By contrast, Alaska salmon fisheries are certified as environmentally sustainable by an internationally recognized oversight agency.
For better or worse, Alaska decided not to jump into the farmed salmon business. Alaska's "ocean ranching" salmon fishermen are fighting a strong tide in the marketplace. The mystique of Alaska is a valuable business asset that offers their best hope of success.