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Improved handling practices noted for Bristol Bay salmon

April 18th, 2011 | Margaret Bauman Print this article   Email this article  

Remember that fish at the bottom of the brailer, the last choice on anyone's dinner menu?

Not any more, says Mark Buckley, a veteran commercial fish harvester, turned researcher and writer, in a new report card on the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery.

Buckley was watching one Bristol Bay harvester delivering his catch to a tender last season and a few fish had fallen under the bottom of one brailer in the fish hold.

Rather than add those sockeye salmon into the load being delivered to the processor, the captain instructed "save it. We'll eat it for dinner."

Buckley, now a graduate student seeking a doctorate in interdisciplinary studies, is the president of Digital Observer Inc. He has been studying for several years now the famed Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run, a fishery historically renowned more for its volume than the quality of its fish.

"It is impossible to recapture the value when there is handling abuse on the fishing grounds," he concluded, but "fishermen can be motivated to improve the value by improving quality, and report cards and value compensation have potential to improve the bottom line by rewarding quality."

In a report card delivered April 14 to harvesters and others at ComFish, Kodiak's annual commercial fisheries meeting and trade show, Buckley praised the cooperative efforts of individual harvesters and others in the industry to improve the handling of the harvest, which has resulted in higher quality and higher prices.

"Improving the quality of seafood is a great way to increase the value of seafood without taking more fish out of the ocean," he said.

The problem with the Bristol Bay fishery, he said, is there has been biological success, but economic failure. There is a need for change in quality practices because of the economic losses stemming from the downturn in salmon prices, he said.

Buckley recalled that from a very good year in 1986, prices plummeted in 1990 and a lot of fishermen went into the red. "The market has turned around, but statewide numbers are not nearly what I would like to see them at," he said. "We can turn those numbers around by improving the quality of the salmon, so every fish that goes into the market is a high valued fish."

Buckley's research asks what affects the quality of the salmon from the time it's caught until the time it reaches the processing plant, and also how the industry can improve quality, given the constraints of the fishery.

Remember, he said, "these were all perfect fish when swimming in the water."

In 2009, Buckley's salmon quality report card to harvesters showed that 43 percent of the catch from harvesters participating in the study was number 1 quality, 51 percent were number 2 quality and 6 percent were number 3 quality. By 2010, 69 percent were top quality, 26 percent were number 2 quality and 5 percent were number 3 quality.

Along with the efforts of individual harvesters, who have improved the quality of their delivered catch with better handling, Buckley called on processors to consider changes, including refrigerated seawater holding tanks to handle large volume deliveries during the height of the Bristol Bay run. "Sometimes there have to be generational changes at the processing and harvesting level" (to improve quality), he said.

Buckley's report to ComFish also included a comparison of the wild salmon harvest to that offered by the farmed fish industry.

The economics show that the production costs of farmed Norwegian Atlantic salmon has gone down while the export price has gone up, he said.

Back in 2005, farmed salmon was preferred by major buyers at Japan's Tsukiji market, with consistent quality being key, he said.

There was no bias against farmed fish. Alaska salmon, especially Bristol Bay salmon, was perceived as lower quality and higher risk, he said.

The following year, Buckley went to look at fish farms in St. George, New Brunswick, Canada. "This is our competition, and it comes down to quality," he said. "They start with a relatively poor quality fish and produce a higher quality."

There the fish are suctions into the processing facility, stunned and moved into slush ice.

The fish are bled and kept in refrigerated seawater for 24 hours, so there is no bruising.

It takes the fish about 10 minutes to go through the plant. "Intrinsically their fish are not as good as ours," Buckley said. "There is no question which is the better fish, but they are doing something different. The workers in their plans are union workers getting union wages and benefits. They hire locally."

Buckley also posed ethical questions about how the salmon are treated.

"Should we respect these abundant fish as gifts of nature?" he asked. "Is trashing 30 to 60 percent of them okay?

"I'm against Pebble (the massive copper, gold and molybdenum mine proposed in Southwest Alaska), but we in Bristol Bay say we want to protect the fish. If I were a Pebble mine guy, I would ask 'why are you trashing 30 to 60 percent of the fish?' I think it is wrong," he said.

Buckley also had praise for the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, whose members approved taxing of the drift gillnet fleet 1 percent of the price paid to harvesters. That tax, collected by the state, is then forwarded annually to BBRSDA to use for infrastructure, research, marketing and other efforts to improve the quality and price of the Bristol Bay harvest.

To date there are three regional seafood development associations, including BBRSDA, the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association, and the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian RSDA. "There has been no interest so far from Kodiak," he said.


Margaret Bauman can be reached at, or by phone at 907-348-2438

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