Alaska salmon can build a niche

PHOTO/Nancy Pounds/AJOC
Arnsdorf.jpg The salmon industry in Alaska is in big trouble. Everyone now seems to agree with that. And the cause is clear: inexpensive farm-raised salmon. Demand for salmon has exceeded supply. Last year, for the first time, some Alaska salmon fisheries’ output was essentially unwanted. Prices were so low, fishermen did not fish, and no customers cared.

This situation is not going to get better. Total capacity of the farms continues to grow, and it is growing as fast or faster than market growth. At present, Alaska’s canned fish market has not been significantly impacted, but that may soon change as well. As capacity continues to grow and costs to drop, expect to see more of the farm product being canned.

So, what is left for Alaska? Taste tests consistently show carefully handled and well-prepared Alaska salmon being preferred to farmed salmon. Alaska can build on this by selling the salmon to a high-end market of unique and specialty foods. This is a market idea pioneered by Copper River producers and now being considered in many other areas of the state. Developing this market will take some effort, but there are many buyers who will help if they can get the product they need to supply this market.

What exactly do these buyers want? They want consistent and consistently high quality product. In order to produce this, the fishermen, tender operators and first-level processors must all follow consistent grading rules and consistent and stringent handling rules.

The salmon quality project being carried out by the Alaska Manufacturers’ Association and a group of fishermen and processors in Cordova is aimed directly at producing fish to serve this market, and will be expanded to several other areas this summer.

The process begins by identifying a group of fishermen and processors, and others such as tender operators if needed, who will be participating.

Each participant signs a contract agreeing to adhere to the standards. The association will then set up initial training for them on the handling rules and grading rules and at the same time will begin to train the local quality inspectors. As fishing starts, there will be a combination of association experts and the inspectors who have been trained to check that participants are following the rules and to answer questions that always come up.

Surefish is working under contract to Alaska Manufacturers’ Association to help design and fine-tune the handling and grading rules. The inspector/trainers will be on the docks, in the processing plants and sometimes even on the boats, particularly on tenders if they are used.

How much inspection is needed is a function mostly of the processing plant environment. Plants with high turnover or that lack smooth product flow will need more inspector attention.

As the local inspectors become more knowledgeable and more willing to take control when necessary, more of the task can be switched to them. And as the processors become better at this, they will need less inspection. So, costs should drop over time, but there is no way to predict how fast that will happen.

The inspector job is key, and it is a hard job. Inspectors are unpopular. They have to tell people they have flunked. They are the police officers in the plant. Note also that no matter how good the system is and how well it is followed, not all salmon will pass all the tests and be shipped with the quality label.

A common problem is that something happens to prevent the salmon from being delivered to the processor on time, such as a storm. The key is to be sure that no salmon ever ships with the quality label on unless all the handling standards are met.

Tests on salmon coming from this program show better market acceptance and better shelf life, both of which make the fish more valuable. The handling standards focus basically on three key elements to maximize the quality of the fish:

Bleed the fish. The fish must be alive to do this, so this limits some of the fishing techniques; Keep it cool. Fish must be iced immediately after being taken from the water and kept on ice at all times; and Move it quickly. The fish needs to get through the process as fast as possible to minimize lost shelf life and maintain quality.In addition, fish produced are graded using Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute grading rules. This ensures that buyers get what they are expecting. The association has created a logo to identify fish produced under this program. Any salmon being produced in accordance with this program can use the logo.Over the long term, this program will be funded by fees paid by the processors and fishermen to the quality inspectors. Fishermen and processors will need to have a quality plan, and some experience that shows they understand the rules and they can meet them.Quality inspectors will conduct regular visits to fishermen and plants to verify that they are following the handling and grading rules. All will have to meet and maintain minimum standards before they are allowed to use the quality logo. The regular third-party inspections will ensure that everyone participating maintains their quality.With this quality program in place, marketing Alaska wild salmon as a rare and unique delicacy will become feasible and will allow fishing in Alaska to continue to be a significant source of jobs and income.David Arnsdorf is president of the Alaska Manufacturers’ Association in Anchorage. He can be reached via e-mail at ([email protected]).
02/03/2002 - 8:00pm