Even at Increased Prices,
by Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
CHARLESTON, Ore. -- Sitting on the deck of his boat, the Dragonet, salmon fisherman Loren Dixson had to think back to when his teenage daughter was a baby to remember a time when prices for his catch were this good.
"Hannah is 17 now, and it was the year she was born," he said.
Since those high prices in the late 1980s, West Coast salmon fishermen have struggled. A strong El Niño in 1994 depleted food in the ocean, drastically reducing salmon landings. Salmon farms in Chile, Norway and Canada filled the gap, driving down prices as they cranked up production.
But in the past two years, campaigns have promoted the health, taste and environmental benefits of ocean-caught salmon. Fishermen have developed programs to produce a better fish through careful handling. Scientific studies have found higher levels of PCB contamination in farmed salmon. And new laws are highlighting the origin of salmon for consumers. The convergence of all those factors has pushed wild salmon prices back up.
Accounting for inflation, the $5.50 a pound Oregon fish buyers were paying last week for large chinook, the West Coast's premier commercial species, would have been the equivalent of $3.33 in 1987. That's the year Dixson got $4.50 for one boatload in San Francisco.
"It means I actually expect to do reasonably well this year," said Gold Beach fisherman Scott Boley, who has a fish market where he was retailing chinook filets for $9.60 a pound.
Wholesale prices this week dropped to about $3.50 a pound as the California and Washington fleets hit the water and weather improved, but observers expect them to stay strong all summer.
Higher prices have made some middlemen balky, but strong demand has brought them around, said Scott Adams, production manager for Hallmark Fisheries in Charleston.
"I call a guy up and he'll say, 'I'm not buying fish at that price.' An hour later he calls back and asks if I have any fish left," Adams said. "It's amazing. It goes to show you people want to eat certain things."
Fish marketing consultant Howard Johnson of H.M. Johnson & Associates has tracked a slight increase in farmed salmon prices, but noted that wild prices are up much more. He added that the buzz was all wild salmon at this year's International Boston Seafood Show, where Legal Sea Foods, a Boston-based chain of 26 restaurants, announced a new line of wild Alaskan salmon dishes.
"Anyone can serve farmed salmon. Farmed salmon is the ubiquitous jug wine of California," said Roger Berkowitz, president of Legal Sea Foods. Wild salmon, "are the boutique varietals -- the chardonnays, the fumé blancs. A lot of people's palates were whet with generic salmon, and now they want something better. I'm in the fish business and I've got to provide that to them."
Fishermen still grumble about prices, but not too loudly. Two years ago, chinook dipped below $1 a pound because of the glut of farmed salmon, which account for 60 percent of the world supply.
"What we have now is an informed public that wants our product," said Daryl Bogardus, skipper of the Pices, tied up across the dock from Dixson's Dragonet. "Instead of taking a back seat to farmed fish, we're getting the price we should."
Laura Anderson, vice president of Local Ocean Seafoods in Newport, has worked with fishermen the past two seasons to handle their fish more carefully to command a higher price. She labels each fish with a photo of the fisherman who caught it.
"I can move as many as I can get," said Anderson. "Plus, there's a lot of competition in the market now. More buyers are coming to Oregon to source fish directly."
Last year, EcoTrust, a Portland group that promotes environmentally sustainable economic development, started its Salmon Nation campaign, calling on seafood lovers to buy ocean-caught fish to protect the environment and promote local economies.
Surveys in Oregon have tracked a steep rise in consumer preference for wild fish, EcoTrust Vice President Eileen Brady said.
In 2002, when asked what salmon they would choose at the grocery or a restaurant, 29 percent said wild salmon, 26 percent farmed salmon, and 35 percent had no preference, according to the survey done by Riley Research Associates of Portland. This year, 58 percent preferred wild salmon, and 10 percent farmed.
"You throw in the PCBs in salmon, with mad cow, with the Asian bird flu, and you have a customer base that's waking up, searching for a healthier quality alternative, and of course wanting to support the local economy," Brady said.
At Higgins restaurant in Portland, chef Greg Higgins will serve only ocean-caught fish. The price of an entree has risen to $29 a plate.
"People are paying it," co-owner Paul Mallory said. "They don't think twice."
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