Story last updated at 3:18 p.m. Thursday, June 27, 2002

Nets in the water, fishermen look to future
Sepp Jannotta

B>$400,000 IS THE PRICE TAG for the five-year program to develop the Kenai Wild brand of certified high quality wild Cook Inlet sockeye, and many of the Upper Cook Inlet fishermen who opened their season today will eventually participate. The goal is to gain a stronger foothold in a domestic seafood market currently dominated by farmed salmon, according to Mark Powell, president of the board for nonprofit Cook Inlet Salmon Brand Inc. "We actually want it to do more than compete," he said of the project that Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley initiated last year. "We believe our fish is better than farmed fish." Borough Business Development Manager Jack Brown said the borough has given the project $168,000. Alaska Manufacturers Association gave another $112,000, and the state Department of Community and Economic Development kicked in $120,000. Another $95,000 is in the state budget awaiting approval from Gov. Tony Knowles, Brown said.

MOST OF THE FUNDS will be spent on teaching fishermen and plant and tender operators about quality control and handling procedures, Brown said. To do this, Cook Inlet Salmon Brand enlisted the services of Seattle-based seafood quality control consulting firm Surefish Seafood Quality Specialists to develop quality standards for the Kenai Wild stamp, inspect the initial batch of production and train local inspectors to continue quality control over the five years of the project. In order to receive the premium branding stamp, fish have to be bled alive and immediately placed on ice. Both driftnetters and setnetters plan to participate in the program. Three Surefish inspectors arrived Tuesday to work with two local inspectors who will study the Surefish quality control methods through early August. Brown said the consultants will offer input at each link in the commercial fishing chain, including overseeing processing locations at any one of the three plants <> Snug Harbor Seafoods, Deep Creek Custom Packing and Salamatof Seafoods. Brown said this first year of the pilot, the project intends to producebetween 10,000 and 12,000 pounds of headed and gutted fillets. This number, he said, will gradually increase as the pilot program progresses.

THE ENTIRE SOCKEYE HARVEST, including sport-caught fish, will be around 2.2 million fish for Upper Cook Inlet, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game projections. Some 1.8 million are expected to be taken by commercial fishermen, according to Jeff Fox, commercial fisheries biologist with the department, a lower-than-average catch. He added that upper Cook Inlet fishermen, who ratcheted up their setnet and driftnet seasons this morning, will likely see few emergency openings this season. "There probably won't be a whole lot of extra fishing time," he said. The run is managed for an escapement goal of 1.5 million sockeye in upper inlet streams. Last year, the sockeye harvest was about 1.8 million fish, one of the poorest harvests on record. The 20-year average harvest in upper Cook Inlet is close to 4 million fish.

UPPER COOK INLET FISHERMEN are preparing for the worst, as many in the industry believe fish-packing plants will be paying historically low prices for inlet sockeyes. "The best I've heard, it might be comparable to last year, or it might be 10 cents (per pound) lower," said Brent Johnson, a Cook Inlet setnetter. "We're looking to see the worst year ever. I expect prices to be low, and I don't expect to have a lot of fishing time." Last year's price was near 40 cents a pound. Prices for upper Cook Inlet fish are commonly based on what is paid in Kodiak and Bristol Bay, according to Jeff Berger of Deep Creek Custom Packing in Ninilchik. Last year, fishermen in Bristol Bay got just 40 cents per pound for their sockeyes. In Kodiak this month, fishermen remained ashore for five fishing days until a processor offered them 59 cents a pound. Until the early 1990s, it was not uncommon for Cook Inlet sockeye to fetch as much $1.50 per pound.

TED STEVENS WENT TO BAT last week on Capitol Hill for the continued presence of the U.S. Coast Guard on the nation's fishing grounds. With a proposed new Department of Homeland Security likely to see the Coast Guard as one of its key components on the home front in the war on terrorism, the senator maintained that it is critical that the Coast Guard continue to monitor fishing grounds and enforce the nation's Exclusive Economic Zone from foreign intrusion. It would be wrong, Stevens said, "to remove the Coast Guard's role of protecting our fisheries and ensuring the safety of our fishing fleets."

EAT ALL YOU LIKE is the recommendation of an advisory from the Alaska Division of Public Health on the consumption of Alaska's fish. This pronouncement came on the heels of national fish advisories from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Food and Drug Administration that warned of potentially unhealthy mercury levels in fish. The FDA has now acknowledged that the data prompting the current national consumption recommendations were not based on fish from Alaska. The federal agency also said that the levels of mercury in Alaska fish are far below the average levels upon which it issued the advisory. The most frequently consumed Alaska fish, such as salmon, cod, halibut, pollock, sole and herring, have very low levels of mercury, according to state epidemiologists. The Alaska fish consumption advisory proclaimed Alaska fish to be the backbone of a healthy diet, and suggested alternative dietary choices could be far more harmful to one's health than the exposure to negligible amounts of mercury, which occurs in nature at safe levels.

BRISTOL BAY FISHERY managers briefly let out word they were considering an early Nushagak District commercial fishing opening earlier this month after ADF&G counted a better-than-expected return of 13,900 king salmon migrating upstream from Dillingham. But biologists there changed their mind before fishermen had a chance to net any fish, according to a report last week from the Bristol Bay Times. With an in-river goal of 75,000 kings, the department said the first three days of counting looked to put the fishery well ahead of previous forecasts. But a drop in the numbers of fish swimming past sonar counters prompted Fish and Game to rethink the idea. Meanwhile, over in the Togiak District, fishermen were casting their nets last week, but early reports were of a slow start.

HALIBUT TAGS COULD EARN commercial fishermen a $500 reward, if the tag is one of 12 Pop-up Satellite Transmitting Archival Tags deployed by the International Pacific Halibut Commission and the U.S. Geological Survey. The 6-inch, microphone shaped tags are attached to the fish by a black plastic leader secured beneath the dorsal fin. The study is taking place along portions of the British Columbia and Southeast Alaska coasts. Fishermen are asked to record the date, location, sex and fork-length of the halibut. Then call IPHC at 206-634-1838.

<>Peninsula Clarion reporters Marcus K. Garner and Matt Tunseth contributed to this report