Banner year for salmon trollers

Troll-caught fish bring highest prices since 1985

Posted: Sunday, September 19, 2004

Juneau fisherman Mark Stopha feels like a lucky guy. As a new fisherman, he doesn't have to pine for the "good old days" of Alaska fishing.

This year is as close as it's been to the good old days for salmon trollers in Southeast Alaska.

The prices for troll-caught wild Alaska salmon were higher than they've been since the signing of the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada in 1985, Southeast Alaska seafood processors said.

While the fishing season is not over and the final tallies are not in, it has been obvious all season long that it's been a marvelous summer for king and coho salmon runs.

"We had a lot more king to catch than usual, and a lot more coho," said Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trolling Association. "Right out of the chute, the price was higher than last year," she added.

She noted that the troll fleet's product is really a small component of what seafood processors are doing in Alaska, but some innovative things are happening at plants that portend well for low-volume and high-volume Alaska fishermen alike.

For example: "More processors have turned to fillet," Kelley said.

"That's an important segment of the market that we (trollers) were slow to get into," she said, explaining that the troll fleet has mostly produced head-off frozen product.

Filleting fish is, of course, a more expensive undertaking at a processing plant. Bones must be picked out of the fish. Another meticulous undertaking is becoming more common at high-volume pink salmon canneries - skinless and boneless meat.

Terry Barry, general manager at Hoonah Cold Storage, said the seiners he knows seem to be optimistic, though they haven't had the trollers' luck with prices .

Many seafood processors have closed down in the past few years. Other plants, like his, have not been able to afford maintenance work on their operations.

"This year, we're hoping we can see a return so we can put some money into maintenance on our plant," he said.

Barry added, "It's been really refreshing to see fishermen leaving our office with a smile on their face ... I think they are going to have a much less stressful year."

He estimated a $1.30-$1.40 price range on cohos this summer. "And kings are about double what they were a year ago," he added.

Kelley said, "It's difficult to find a troll permit for sale right now and that's always a good sign."

Stopha said he reaps good prices if he practices his own meticulousness. Also, he does much of his own marketing.

A former Alaska Fish and Game Department employee Stopha said he actually caught fewer fish this year because he worked so hard to cleanse blood from their bellies and tails.

"It takes two times as long to clean fish that way," he said. As far as he can tell, it's worth it. He sells his fish up and down the East Coast, to Colorado and elsewhere. "If you keep your quality up, that's where everything starts. Your customers tell their friends," Stopha said.

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