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A Species at Risk: Salmon Fishermen

by Hal Bernton, staff reporter
Seattle Times, September 3, 2001

KENAI, Alaska After 12 hours of fishing in the silty waters of Cook Inlet, Greg Perkins returns to port in a boat full of sockeye salmon. In the first big opening of the year, his gillnet has snared 7-, 8-, 9- and even 10-pounders with chrome-bright skins and ruby-red meat.

Sockeye are the traditional money fish in a state that has long boasted the world's greatest harvest of wild salmon. The resource for decades has been shared by more than 1,500 Washington fishermen who work Alaska waters.

But today they are competing in an industry increasingly dominated by farmers big, corporate farmers who produce salmon in net pens floating in the coastal waters of Chile, Norway, Scotland and British Columbia.

In the past decade, the annual production of farmed salmon has increased more than five-fold, far outstripping the annual wild- salmon harvests.

And this summer, salmon markets have collapsed amid an epic glut in global supplies. Prices are down for both farmed and wild salmon.

Perkins and other Cook Inlet fishermen are receiving from 60 to 65 cents a pound for sockeye the lowest prices since 1980. The average price during the past 20 years has been more than $1 a pound.

"These farmed fish. They're absolutely killing us," said Perkins, a fisherman from Cathlamet, Wahkiakum County, who has joined the Cook Inlet harvests for the past quarter-century. "They're just inundating the markets."

Like most Cook Inlet fishermen, Perkins holds a winter job: He works a dredge in the Columbia River. But salmon fishing is his passion. In a season that stretches through July and early August, Perkins, 47, works solo in his 34-foot boat, the Grouper, deploying a 900-foot-long gill net in Cook Inlet.

During the harvest, he lives in a beat-up trailer in a dirt lot back from the docks. He has cut back on maintenance, dropped his boat insurance and says he'll be lucky to bring in $8,000 this season, barely enough to cover the cost of fuel and a few other expenses.

In the late '80s and early '90s, Cook Inlet fishermen buoyed by big fish runs and high prices could gross from $50,000 to more than $100,000.

"We're the little guys, and they're taking our livelihood from us," Perkins said.

Salmon glut?

To consumers, talk of a global salmon glut may seem strange, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where many wild-salmon runs have declined in recent decades and are the focus of multibillion-dollar revival efforts.

Alaska's wild-salmon runs have remained strong, and the most publicized of its fish the spring run of Copper River kings don't come cheap. The focus of a hugely successful marketing campaign, the Copper River fish sold in early June for prices that often topped $16 a pound.

But the Copper River kings are a fraction of the total Alaska commercial catch that this year has topped 140 million sockeye, king, coho, pinks and chum. Commercial and tribal harvests in the Pacific Northwest also are on the upturn this summer as improved ocean conditions produced huge returns of coho born in hatcheries and turned loose to migrate.

Some seafood lovers swear by the taste of this free-ranging salmon, saying the fish offer a richer, more full-bodied flavor superior to the more bland farmed fish that dine on pellets in crowded pens.

But wild salmon's allure hasn't safeguarded Alaska's markets in Japan, a nation of devoted seafood consumers who have long been the biggest buyers of the state harvest. There, Chilean-farmed coho is considered a good substitute for the Alaska sockeye and has made big market gains.

Sales of the Alaska wild fish are further hampered by the strong dollar that makes it more expensive in overseas markets.

In the United States, many supermarket chains have long-term supply contracts for farmed salmon and feature the wild salmon only sporadically during the spring and summer harvest season.

Retail prices for farmed and wild salmon have sometimes dipped below $3 a pound this summer.

Supermarket officials and seafood-counter workers say the farmed salmon is popular, and that they get far more compliments than complaints.

"We will feature wild salmon when it's available. But the farmed salmon is available year-round. It's fresh, high-quality and consumers seem to like the taste," said Bridget Flanagan, a Safeway spokeswoman.

The road to consumers

Salmon farmers have the luxury of harvesting small batches of fish throughout the year. The salmon are delivered live to the plants, where they are stunned in a carbon-dioxide bath, bled and quickly cleaned.

It's more difficult to maintain the quality of wild salmon that storm back by the millions to Alaska's coastal waters.

The fish typically die as they are netted or soon after they are brought aboard boats. Processing the wild fish during the short summer seasons requires a huge commitment of capital, equipment and labor. And technical glitches can cause big problems.

At the Cook Inlet summer opening, Perkins faces an unexpected delay as a dock winch breaks down. Workers for Cook Inlet Processing turn to muscle power to carry the salmon on shore in a slow-moving process that lasts until early morning.

Delays are more than an inconvenience. The more time between harvest and processing, the more freshness fades.

"Our Alaska supplies are unpredictable and our quality range is quite wide," said Paul Dale, president of Snug Harbor Seafoods in Kenai, Alaska. "The best that Alaska produces is unmatched, but the worst that Alaska produces is not as good as farm products."

In recent years, some wild-salmon processors have stopped trying to process Alaska's regional harvest. Two of the largest Cook Inlet plants in Kenai are shut down; a third big Cook Inlet salmon-processing plant in Homer burned down several years ago and was never rebuilt.

Processors also are retreating in Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska, which boasts the state's largest sockeye harvest. Six processing companies withdrew from the bay this year.

Processors that remain have offered fishermen only 40 cents a pound for their sockeye.

In years past, those low prices likely would have triggered a fishermen's strike. But this year, Bristol Bay gill-netters swallowed their pride, accepted the bottom-of-the-barrel prices and headed out to fish.

At Sand Point on the Alaska Peninsula, fishermen sat out the June harvest season to protest low sockeye prices offered by the only two area processors. Then on July 7 they voted by a narrow margin to fish at 55 cents a pound and fired off an angry letter to the processors.

The letter said that the "unyielding and unified pricing" was "disrespectful to both the communities and the fishermen who have exhibited loyalty to your companies for generations."

Three days later, one of the processors, Seattle-based Trident Seafoods, stunned the fishermen by shutting down its Sand Point operations.

"We have no wish to be swept up in a sea of animosity and discord, particularly for a fishery which promises little profit for fishermen or processor," wrote Paul Padgett, an Alaska support official of Trident Seafoods.

The `organic' label debate

Despite the hard times in the commercial fleets, wild-salmon marketing does have success stories.

Copper River salmon increase in popularity each year, and top-of-the-line wild salmon caught by a hook and line and bled and iced at sea command a premium price.

The Alaska fishing industry also hopes to capitalize on the burgeoning health-food market. Already, some consumers in the U.S. and Europe are spurning farmed fish in favor of the wild fish.

In a lobbying effort joined by state officials, the industry seeks organic certification for Alaska salmon harvests. The idea, however, was rejected in May by a task force of the National Organic Standards Board.

To be called organic, the fish would have to be raised in a confined setting as are herds of cattle or flocks of poultry, the task force ruled. The decision leaves open an avenue for farm fish to gain the organic label, but not wild salmon foraging in an ocean where standards cannot be ensured.

Another market for Alaska salmon is the humble can, but the product caters to an aging generation of consumers, and demand is relatively flat.

Harvest reform a tough issue

To stay competitive with the farmed salmon, wild-salmon processors also are rethinking harvest procedures, which often involve far more vessels than are needed to bring in the catch. But harvest reform is fraught with political peril.

In the 1950s, a substantial portion of the commercial harvest was taken by fish traps set at strategic river-mouth locations. The fish funneled into the traps and then could be held live until shipment to canneries.

But Seattle-based processors controlled many of the traps, and a fierce resentment of that helped propel the drive for Alaska statehood, achieved in 1959. In the Alaska constitution, the fish traps were outlawed.

Few industry officials are daring to propose the return of fish traps. But fleets either through buyouts or attrition could shrink in the years ahead. And the fishermen who remain may have to focus more on the quality than the quantity of their catch.

The declining value of Alaska's commercial catch comes at a time of growing recreational and subsistence demands for the salmon. Those demands are strongest in Cook Inlet, where harvest policies have changed in recent years to give more fish to the sport anglers who help sustain a booming Kenai Peninsula tourism industry, and more to Alaska residents, who are allowed to dip-net the sockeye.

The gill-netter, Perkins, bridles at all these changes.

"I'll fight to keep fishing till the day I die," he says.

But he can't afford to keep losing money. He's got alimony to pay and kids to support.

If he has to quit Cook Inlet, Perkins says, he won't go quietly. He says he'll dump his gear overboard, then sail the Grouper into the mouth of the Kenai River. Then he'll follow an old Viking tradition to mourn the death of a warrior: He will set the vessel ablaze.

Related Links:
Bumper Crops of Farmed Salmon Sinks Prices, Threatens Wild Fishery Seattle Times, 9/2/01
Salmon Show Alarming Levels of Illegal Chemicals Seattle Times, 9/1/01

Hal Bernton, staff reporter
A Species at Risk: Salmon Fishermen
Seattle Times, September 3, 2001

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