Pacific Northwest salmon have been choked off by dams, poisoned by pollution and heavily fished by sportsmen to commercial fishermen to Indian tribes. But it is salmon farming that threatens to do the industry in. Two decades ago more than 5,000 salmon boats fished off the coasts of Oregon and Washington. About 500 do today.
Cheap farmed fish make up 80 percent of the salmon sold in the United States.
Farms raise 97 percent of chinook, coho and Atlantic salmon eaten around the world. Foreign corporations have quadrupled imports of salmon into the United States during the past 15 years.
Salmon farmers can assure grocery chains of all the fish they need to plan months ahead.
Al Ritter and those like him know they can't do that.
He bought his boat, the 36-foot Mickey, in 1976 and even then people told him the fishing would not last. But he took the chance.
"It's just the die-hards left," Ritter said. "The last few years it's been a buck a pound, $1.25 a pound. You work twice as hard for the same amount."
Today's shrunken Oregon fleet landed almost the same volume of chinook and coho salmon in 2001 as in 1985. But it earned less than half as much in real dollars.
The Fred Meyer in Newport, Ore., sells Canadian farmed salmon for $4.98 a pound.
"They killed our market," said Ritter, who sells his catch directly to restaurants and to passers-by on the docks. "Most people who go into a store don't even know what they're eating."
A Fred Meyer spokesman said the chain carries wild salmon when it can, but "Farm-raised is very important to meeting the year-round needs of our customers," spokesman Rob Boley said.
"You'd think people would know better in a fishing community," Ritter says in disgust.
The federal government invests millions of dollars to support fish farming.
"Fishing is sort of the last of the hunting and gathering activities," said David Harvey, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "In almost all other cases, we've gone to industrial agriculture for our food."
Now 52, with a house and family in Waldport, Ritter works the coast two or three days a week. He needs 60 to 80 large salmon a week to make it. Sometimes he gets them, sometimes not.
"There's days I think I have the best job in the world," he says. "There's days I think I'm out of my mind doing this."
It hardly makes sense to him that fishermen hauling in wild salmon should compete at a bargain-basement price point.
"That's awfully nice product for a buck a pound," he says. "What do you pay for hot dogs?"
Oregon's rugged, exposed coast cannot support salmon farms. Washington's sheltered Puget Sound has about 10.
Fish farms developed a skinless, boneless product to suit centralized chain stores: Their computers can route a fish to an Oregon supermarket before it leaves the water. They sell to inland Americans who had rarely seen fresh salmon.
"Farmed salmon has the potential to do what the poultry industry did for chicken, make it a staple," said Gunnar Knapp, a professor at the University of Alaska who studies salmon sales.
Meanwhile, salmon imports to the United States doubled between 1986 and 1989 and again since then.
Worldwide, the volume of farmed salmon multiplied by 20 times between 1985 and 2000 to more than 1 million tons.
By 2001, Americans ate twice as much salmon on average as they had 10 years earlier.
Chinook remained the mainstay of Northwest fishermen, but cheap, farmed salmon made it worth less than ever.
"It blew the price structure out from under West Coast wild salmon," said Onno Husing, director of the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association, a coalition of coastal governments.
"You had a fleet that crashed and burned because their access to the product and the price they were getting for it were going down and down and down."
The United States used to make hundreds of millions of dollars a year on salmon exports. Last year it paid other countries $427 million more for salmon than it earned.
As aquaculture expands, experts say, automation will further lower the cost of farmed fish.
The fish farmers say they are just bringing modern methods to an industry that has stood still for decades.
Oddly enough, the best hope for Ritter and other fishermen may be to ride the wave of farmed fish that swamped them.
If they can entice people lured by inexpensive farmed salmon to try its wild counterpart, they may win converts willing to pay premium prices.
"We're never going to take back the market from farmed, but we can get a piece of it," said Ray Riutta, director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
Alaska and Oregon fishermen are testing freezing methods and readying ads hyping the natural flavor of wild salmon.
Ritter warns everyone passing his boat that it is artificial coloring that gives farmed salmon the rosy hue. He talks of the risk of farms spreading disease and opening the door for Atlantic salmon to escape and compete with native species.
"The ones who don't (know), I educate them," he says. "That's part of my job."
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