KENAI -- The drive to invigorate the Cook Inlet salmon industry is on.After all the marketing and money invested, the opening of the commercial fishing season in the Inlet last month meant time for action. Four seafood processors, 30 to 35 commercial fishermen, and a salmon buyer agreed to participate in the $400,000 Cook Inlet Salmon Brand Inc. program. They are following a plan that hopes to bring to the fresh and frozen Inlet salmon fishing industry the ability to compete with farmed salmon.Success could mean revitalization and stabilization of the commercial salmon fishing industry.Fish can earn the "Premium" grade, the higher of the two grades available, or grade "A," the second level.Although much of the process fish follow from gillnet to market does not change for this program, significant steps have been added along the way to assure consistent quality before the Kenai Wild certified seal is placed on an Inlet sockeye.Bleeding and chilling at sea"These program fish are pretty hard to do on boats these sizes unless it’s a (slow) day," said Ninilchik driftnet fisher John McCombs July 11 from the helm of his 33-foot commercial fishing boat, Katydid.He said the previous Monday’s opening produced fewer fish set aside for the program due to a steady stream of fish and inexperienced help.On July 11, McCombs only caught 72 fish. He pulled in his gillnet after a second set off the Katydid’s stern only to find three fish. Undaunted, he began following the procedure to make his catch meet the standards of the branding program.Carefully, he untangled the sockeyes from the net and reached into each one’s gills."See," McCombs said, tearing at one fish’s breathing organs, producing an immediate flow of blood. "You rip out their gills like this. Now, this is a program fish."He then passed each fish off to his deckhand, 15-year-old daughter Maureen, who stowed them below deck in a storage hold filled with almost 600 pounds of ice. Even with the three reds chilling below, he expected later catches to stand a better chance of passing muster for the seal."If you do program fish, you should take them out of the last set of the day," McCombs said. "That way, they’re fresher."During the day, he pointed out spots on a few of his fish, like sores and net marks, that could warrant demerits from inspectors onshore."These bruises are net marks," McCombs said, pointing at a set of heavy, black lines just behind one sockeye’s gills. "They don’t want those."His fish were accepted as program fish, for this first layer of grading. They would be grouped together with more fish for subsequent scrutiny, but the program has no means in place to track them from this point.McCombs said he became involved with the program because he was interested in promoting consistent quality."Everybody can take better care of their fish," he said. "There’s got to be some way to show more value. Hopefully, branded fish will do that."Scrutinizing salmon once they reach landChristine Keenan, a seafood inspector for Surefish Quality Specialists, stood outside Deep Creek Custom Packing in Ninilchik the evening of July 11 peering into totes filled with ice and freshly harvested sockeyes."I’m making sure the quality meets the standard," Keenan said.That standard calls for fish to be bled and chilled on fishing vessels and handled with care, she said.Processors must get fish to the plant as soon as possible, keeping the fish on ice and taking care not to rough up the fish’s skin. Once fish leave the ocean and are killed, their bodies begin to deteriorate, making them susceptible to easy bruising.Keenan said she looks at specific features of the fish to determine the level of care each salmon has received before reaching her. She looks for the amount of scales and for marks, she said."If the skin is soft and wrinkly, or if it is bruised, I know it has not been iced," she said. "Then I look at the eyes for clarity and I look at the gills to see if (the fish) has been bled. I also look for a yellowish or pasty white slime on the fish. Colored slime is bad, but a clear slime is normal."Keenan also takes each fish’s temperature using a rectal thermometer. She said driftnetters’ salmon should register 32 degrees Fahrenheit, while setnetters, whose fish often are exposed to elements and on ice for shorter periods, are expected to return fish at about 38 degrees.But there is no exact science to grading the sockeye, she said.Inspectors have to use their own judgment, and clearer rules will come as the program transitions from its pilot stage. Since fishermen turn fish over to the program on a voluntary basis, there’s little pressure to have everyone meet standards, she said."You can tell when you’ve been looking at fish long enough, how long they’ve been iced," she said. "If they run into any trouble, they’re not required to bring the fish in."Packaging and a second lookMark Powell, Cook Inlet Salmon Branding president and owner of Alaska Salmon Purchasers Inc., reiterated the importance of enforcing quality standards in a meeting July 12 at Snug Harbor Seafood in Kenai. A Surefish inspector and two Kenai Peninsula Borough employees training as inspectors also attended the meeting."The integrity of the label is everything," he said. "Take no prisoners on that."Friday the trio, Karin Ho-brook of Surefish and borough hires Brandi Ohlsen of Sterling and John DeVolld of Soldotna, oversaw the filleting process at Snug Harbor’s custom packing arm, taking a second look at sockeye meat caught the previous day."We have to follow the fish everywhere it goes to make sure at each step people are following the program handling procedures," Holbrook said. "Hopefully, by the third year, we can self-certify some people so we can just audit quality every so often."Ohlsen said this first year of the program has the inspectors working frequently to pave the way for standards that will not require such stringent oversight."We’re more hands-on right now," she said. "We’re getting people used to our standards."At the plant, the three inspect for texture, color, pin bone removal and gaping, the separation of the muscle fibers. The inspectors also take random samples of fish after being headed and gutted, filleting selected salmon themselves. And Ohlsen said they look for butchers’ defects.Holbrook said the high mark premium grade does not allow for many defects."Premium is basically perfect fish," she said.Holbrook said the "A" grade is still preferable to no fish at all, and said many salmon miss getting in the program due to a misunderstanding that premium is all the program will accept." ’A’ grade just has to be chilled but can be dead in the net," she said. "Setnetters believe because their fish aren’t bled alive, they can’t be ’A,’ so they’re not submitting them."As of July 12, 7,122 pounds of fish of the 10,000-pound goal set for the program had been certified.Marketing: getting the word outPowell said the program is on target with reaching its initial test market. Samples of salmon fillets embossed with the Kenai Wild logo will be sent directly to 12 high-end seafood buyers in the Lower 48, including regional restaurant and grocery chains from the Pacific Northwest to the Northeastern Atlantic.Chris Mitchell of Seattle’s marketing group Seafood Market Developers works with the branding project finding and building relationships with potential direct buyers. Mitchell said these first impressions with potential long-term wild salmon buyers could make or break the program."We’re talking to the people who are willing to pay more for a better fish," he said. "That’s why it’s critical that for sure on these samples there’s perfection."Mitchell said the end-goal will be split between fillets and headed and gutted fish. But he said the market wants more fillets and restaurateurs want to be able to go straight to the oven with the wild salmon they receive.He said headed and gutted fish could bring in $2 per pound, where fillets could get double that price."In order for this fishery to survive, they need that $4," he said.