Story last updated at 1:54 p.m. Thursday, July 18, 2002

Inlet fish-branding program sets sail
by Marcus K. Garner
Morris News Service-Alaska

The drive to invigorate the Cook Inlet salmon industry is on. After all the marketing and money invested, the opening of the commercial fishing season in the inlet last month meant time for action.

The 30 to 35 commercial fishermen, four seafood processors and a salmon buyer who agreed to participate in the $400,000 Cook Inlet Salmon Brand Inc. program are following new rules to bring to fruition a plan that will help the inlet salmon fishing industry compete with cheaper, market-dominating farmed salmon.

Although much of the process fish follow from gillnet to market does not change for this program, significant steps have been added along the way to assure consistent quality before the Kenai Wild quality certified seal is placed on an inlet sockeye.

Cook Inlet Salmon Branding president and Alaska Salmon Purchasers Inc. owner Mark Powell said the enforcement of quality standards is essential.

"The integrity of the label is everything," he said. "Take no prisoners on that."

Powell said the program is on target with reaching its initial test market. Samples of salmon fillets embossed with the Kenai Wild logo will be sent directly to 12 high-end seafood buyers in the Lower 48, including regional restaurant and grocery chains from the Pacific Northwest to the Northeastern Atlantic.

Chris Mitchell of Seattle marketing group Seafood Market Developers works with the branding project finding and building relationships with potential direct buyers. Mitchell said these first impressions with potential long-term wild salmon buyers could make or break the program.

"We're talking to the people who are willing to pay more for a better fish," he said. "That's why it's critical that for sure on these samples there's perfection."

He said headed and gutted fish could bring in $2 per pound, where fillets could get double that price.

"In order for this fishery to survive, they need that $4," he said.