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Tribal Fishermen Look to Expand Their Market

by Associated Press
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - August 1, 2004

VANCOUVER, Wash. -- Tribal fishermen have traded salmon along the shores of the Columbia River for hundreds of years. Now, they're hoping to expand their market.

The Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission is exploring the feasibility of constructing a $8.6 million fish-processing and retail center that would include 500 jobs and allow the tribes to sell more of their wild catch directly to stores and the public, instead of to other processors.

"We definitely could use a good processing plant to get a better price," said Rex Zack, a member of the Yakama Nation.

Faced with increasing competition from the farmed fish industry, four mid-Columbia tribes are looking for ways to tap into a market for salmon caught in the wild.

Currently, tribal members sell about a third of their commercial catch directly to the public at roadside stands such as the one in Cascade Locks, Ore. There, in the parking lot outside the Charburger restaurant, customers peruse whole salmon and fillets packed into coolers and hauled to the makeshift market in pickup trucks.

The rest are sold to fish buyers for as little as 50 to 75 cents per pound based on larger volumes.

"If we are to continue this livelihood, we need to maximize the value of each one of the fish," said Jon Matthews, finance and operations director for the intertribal fish commission in Portland.

Meanwhile, tribal fishermen have been squeezed by competition from the farmed-fish industry.

By raising Atlantic salmon within huge net pens in Puget Sound, British Columbia and South America, salmon farmers can offer wholesale buyers a guaranteed price and quantity of fish year-round. That's why tribes across the Northwest have started looking for new ways to develop and exploit a premium market for Pacific salmon caught in the wild.

The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, for example, this year forged a deal with Safeway to sell tribal salmon at stores around Puget Sound.

"That's one of the best prices you can get if you can work a deal to go direct to market," said Debbie Preston, spokeswoman for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission in Olympia.

Preston said other tribes will be watching to see whether the Columbia tribes' venture into commercial fish processing makes sense. Because of the high cost - Matthews estimates construction costs to be $5 million - the Columbia River tribes would look to other federal grants to help pay for it. Such a processing center could enable the tribes to develop specialty products such as smoked salmon, extending the time that a fish caught during the designated seasons could be sold throughout the year.

Additional funding would include staffing, marketing, specialty product development, food safety and business training.

"We are looking at ways that we can fund these activities," Matthews said. "It's not only an economic venture, but a cultural tradition."

A site for the proposed processing center hasn't been determined, but it would likely be somewhere on tribal fishing grounds between Bonneville and McNary dams.

Associated Press
Additional information from The Columbian
Tribal Fishermen Look to Expand Their Market
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 1, 2004

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