Story last updated at 5/6/2009 - 11:18 am
Salmon fishermen in Southeast Alaska are trying again to muster support for a Regional Seafood Development Association. RSDAs were approved by the state in 2004 as a way to help harvesters promote the distinctive attributes of their region's seafoods, much like fine wine makers do with their varietal grapes. The unique RSDA concept allows fishing permit holders to vote to tax themselves, based on the value of their catch, and use the money for whatever projects they choose.
The Southeast Alaska drift gillnet fleet will decide over the next few weeks if it wants to fund the start up of an RSDA, called Rainforest Wild.
"Nearly 475 permit holders will be voting on whether or not to assess themselves 1 percent to provide the seed money to get Rainforest Wild off the ground," said Elizabeth Dubovsky, RSDA interim manager in Juneau.
Two years ago a vote to form an RSDA and include more than 60 Southeast fisheries was narrowly voted down. Now, fishermen are trying the vote on a smaller scale, hoping others will soon follow suit.
"A lot of salmon gillnet permit holders also fish for crab or shrimp - they wear many hats," Dubovsky said. "There is definitely interest among the crabbers and some of the smaller fisheries in the region. They really have a lot to gain by having an organization pull in outside dollars and also help with marketing."
An even bigger opportunity is the way an RSDA can provide fishermen access to state and federal dollars.
"It's getting that seat at the table when it comes to handing out grants and other funding sources. And it is the first time that fishermen in Southeast would have a formal organization that could access federal and state grants," Dubovsky said.
The successes of the RSDAs in two other Alaska regions have not been lost on Southeast fishermen.
"Folks started hearing about some of the infrastructure support in Bristol Bay where they are focusing a lot on ice and sort of 'on the grounds' development. And no one can deny the success Copper River has had in their regional branding and marketing," Dubovsky said.
The 541 drift gillnet permit holders at Copper River/Prince William Sound, the first to form an RSDA in 2005, generate over $200,000 each year from its 1 percent self tax. The group has used the money for bi-coastal advertising campaigns that go "beyond summer" and promote their fall coho salmon. Twenty-six CR/PWS setnetters recently voted to join the RSDA.
Since 2006, Bristol Bay's 1 percent tax on each of its 1,800 member driftnet fleet has generated more than $3 million for its RSDA. More than half of the cash has gone into chilling projects throughout Bristol Bay, which returned a 10-cent per pound bonus to fishermen last year.
"The overarching goal is to improve revenues for Bay fishermen. The fastest way to do that is through improved quality," said BBRSDA spokesman Bob Waldrop. "Make the fish better, they'll be worth more."
That's the bottom line for Wrangell fisherman Keith Anundi, who has been behind Rainforest Wild from the get-go.
"I've had fishermen say they are afraid that if they improve their quality at Bristol Bay, it will adversely affect our prices. But I adamantly disagree with that because the higher the bar is for all our salmon in Alaska, the better it's going to be for all of us," he said. "I wouldn't be involved if I didn't believe this would substantially increase profitability for gillnet fishermen in Southeast Alaska."
A 1 percent tax on the Southeast fleet would yield an estimated $160,000 per year.
"It's a modest amount, but critical to getting the RSDA off the ground, to start projects and pursue more outside funding sources," Dubovsky said.
A newly elected board of directors will include representation from all Southeast regions, she added. A "last chance" meeting on the Rainforest Wild RSDA is set for May 13 in Juneau. Deadline to return ballots is June 16.
AK seafood in Times Square
Alaska seafood is appearing live on a sky high, super screen in the heart of New York City. The Times Square promotion, created by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, is timed to coincide with the start of salmon season.
"It is Alaska salmon plunging up stream as the 'wild, natural and sustainable' Alaska Seafood logo gets larger and larger superimposed over the top," said Laura Fleming, ASMI communications director. "It's only five seconds, but that's a lot of face time in video parlance. It appears three times every hour and will be seen by 1.5 million people each day for 77 days."
Fleming says the ultimate goal is to get more value from Alaska's catch.
"ASMI does not buy or sell seafood," she said. "All we can do is raise the value of Alaska's harvest so that everyone gets more benefit, and we get as many of our fish into that premium category as possible."
See the Times Square seafood billboard ad at alaskaseafood.org.
Not to be outdone
SalmonChile is launching a $2.7 million marketing blitz to hold onto market share amid falling farmed fish crops due to disease, and increased competition from Norway. The "salmon from the end of the world" promotion, funded with 65 percent from the government, will also study consumer perceptions about Chile's fish farming industry.
A new book titled "Enclosing the Fisheries: People, Places and Power" features the community impacts of restricted fishing access programs around the world. Find "Enclosing the Fisheries" at www.alaskaseagrant.org/.
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. She lives in Kodiak.