Quest for quality.
Last summer's collapse in Alaska salmon prices taught fishermen and processors some difficult but long overdue lessons. They learned, for example, that competition from higher-quality farmed salmon, and a glut of salmon -- both farmed and wild -- has eroded Alaska's share of the world market. Now fishermen and processors must learn perhaps their hardest lesson yet: that salmon quality is an issue they no longer can ignore if they expect to get those markets back.
"In the global market today, the salmon setting the quality standard are farmed salmon," says Kevin O'Sullivan, coordinator for salmon quality with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), a state-, federal- and industry-funded group that promotes Alaska seafood. "We have to respond to that."
Responding effectively may mean changing industry attitudes founded on a nearly 100-year-old practice of stuffing salmon into a can. "We don't worry about what salmon look like because we still have the mind-set that salmon are going into a can," says Chuck Crapo, a seafood quality specialist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program. "That attitude has to change because a lot more salmon are going into fresh and fresh-frozen markets where appearance and quality are everything."
Crapo's view of the industry comes from firsthand experience. He has worked for five seafood processing firms, including stints as plant manager for Icicle Seafoods and quality control manager with Petersburg Fisheries and Sitka Sound Seafoods. He now conducts research on seafood quality and processing technologies at the UAF Fishery Industrial Technology Center in Kodiak. Crapo counts himself among a small army of seafood experts who say Alaska's salmon problems are due in large part to a lackadaisical attitude toward quality.
Regional Rankings. Quality was a key focus of a United States General Accounting Office study of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon prices conducted following last summer's strike by the bay's fishermen. The study found that increased Japanese imports of high-quality farmed salmon played a significant role in Alaska's dwindling share of the Japanese sockeye market.
According to Craig Wiese, business management specialist at the UAF Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, Japanese fish buyers -- long regarded as sticklers for quality -- place Bristol Bay sockeyes at the bottom of the heap. "Japanese buyers don't favor the Bristol Bay sockeyes because they consider them not as well handled as farmed salmon or wild sockeye salmon from elsewhere in Alaska," says Wiese, who last November participated in a 10-day tour of Japanese salmon on marketing and distribution networks.
Lawmakers and fishing industry representatives took part in the tour sponsored by the Alaska Office of Commercial Fisheries Development and the Japanese Overseas Fishery Cooperative Foundation of Tokyo. Industry sources in Japan told Wiese they regard wild salmon from Canadian waters as the best quality -- and therefore the most desirable -- salmon. Next on the desirability scale are sockeyes from the Copper River Delta, Southeast Alaska, Cook Inlet and the Chignik/Kodiak region. Last on the scale are sockeyes from Bristol Bay.
Bristol Bay sockeyes are dead last in the eyes and palate of the Japanese mostly because they believe the salmon aren't frozen as quickly as salmon from other areas, and because they believe the salmon suffer more damage caused by poor handling. Another important factor is that Bristol Bay sockeyes are not as fatty as most other salmon.
According to Terry Johnson, a Marine Advisory Program agent in Dillingham, the Japanese are willing to pay for their preference. Again, Bristol Bay sockeyes finish last. Johnson notes that processors typically pay 10 percent to 30 percent less for Bristol Bay fish than for fish caught elsewhere in Alaska. Frozen sockeye from Canada, where a rigorous, government-enforced quality program is in place, sold for about 35 percent more than their Bristol Bay counterparts. Johnson says lower Bristol Bay prices are largely the result of a high percentage of grade two salmon, marked down because of poor quality.
Alaska's quality problems are endemic to an industry that catches and processes huge numbers of fish in a short period of time, industry analysts say. In Bristol Bay, the majority of the more than 26 million sockeyes harvested last year came through processing lines within the first 10 days of the season. In Prince William Sound, when the nearly 40 million late-arriving pink salmon finally did come into the fishery, they quickly filled processing plants beyond capacity.
"Last summer we saw the extreme, but this is one of the problems of a pulse fishery," says Crapo. "Processors buy more fish than they can possibly handle in a reasonable amount of time. There are inherent problems with keeping fish in good condition in a situation like that."
Among the damages to salmon seen repeatedly by Crapo and other seafood quality experts are internal and external bruises, mushy flesh, broken backs, clouded eyes, net marks, cracked and broken skin, and gaping -- a grotesque splitting of the muscle tissue caused by rough handling. Other defects such as belly burn and a strong fish odor are caused by bacteria and enzymes that begin to decompose the fish shortly after the fish is killed. The defects make salmon less palatable to brokers of fresh, frozen and smoked salmon products, and -- ultimately -- the consumer.
Shared Blame. Both fishermen and processors share some of the blame for Alaska's salmon quality problems, says Don Kramer, a seafood technology specialist and chair of the state's Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program. "Many of the salmon we see have a general deterioration in quality," says Kramer. "It's not so obvious within the first three to five days. But it becomes quite obvious at the other end of the distribution chain, where the retailer cannot hold fresh fish as long because it wasn't cared for properly."
Kramer points out that many injuries are the result of overloading nets and brails, practices that cause excessive net marks on the skin and scale loss. Salmon also are bruised and battered when dumped into a boat's hold and later when transferred to a tender or processing plant.
But the most serious offense is inadequate chilling of salmon on board fishing vessels, according to salmon quality experts and an ASMI survey on salmon quality done last March. "Fishermen still aren't getting fish chilled right away," says Kramer. "Yes, more fishermen have chilling systems now than several years ago, but there are still a lot of fishermen who don't have them. Quality begins to drop right away if the fish aren't immediately chilled."
According to research done by Alaska Sea Grant and the Fishery Industrial Technology Center (FITC), salmon rapidly lose their bright, freshly caught appearance if not quickly placed on ice or into on-board chilling systems. Specifically, the research found that:
* Salmon held just 12 hours before chilling show easily detectable changes in quality. Such salmon had a slight odor, indicating decomposition had begun, and dull eyes. The flesh, however, remained firm and moist.
* Salmon held 24 hours prior to chilling had a strong fishy odor, noticeably soft flesh, and dry, cracked skin. Eyes were dull and sunken into the head.
* Salmon held 48 hours before chilling showed extreme quality loss, with soft flesh and pungent fish odor indicating decomposition was well under way.
Abuse of Alaska's salmon doesn't stop once the salmon are delivered to the processing plant. Again, damage to salmon is mostly the result of a frantic effort to process as many fish as possible in the shortest time.
Unskilled labor and frequent worker turnover seem to be the biggest quality problems affecting processors, says John Doyle, professor of fisheries and seafood industry expert with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "Basically, processing plant workers need better training," says Doyle. "They need to realize they are handling food, not pieces of wood. You don't throw around food."
Processors also must remain vigilant and improve sanitary conditions in their plants, notes Brian Himelbloom, seafood microbiologist with FITC. "The first thing processors should do is inspect the fish as it comes in on the boats, before it's unloaded. Then it's a matter of processing the fish as quickly as possible and as cleanly as possible," says Himelbloom.
Sanitary processing plants use a lot of cold, clean, fresh water and should stop processing lines often to clean equipment and remove fish waste, he explains. "If there are a lot of fish coming in, it becomes even more important to follow a thorough cleanup schedule. Otherwise, it can cause a lot of problems with sanitation," Himelbloom adds.
He believes most plants do their best to keep processing areas clean. Many even have quality control supervisors on site. But without a federal inspection program to monitor seafood quality, some plants cut corners to save money. "There is always room for improvement," says Himelbloom.
Incentives For Change. Alaska's share of world salmon markets has declined 10 percent since 1980, according to ASMI's Salmon 2000, a report critical of the Alaska salmon industry. Japan, which once obtained 84 percent of its salmon from the United States -- chiefly from Alaska -- now imports just 69 percent of its salmon from the United States, according to the General Accounting Office study done in the wake of last year's salmon price crash.
Much of the change is due to increased Japanese imports of high-quality farmed salmon, according to the ASMI report. To recapture these markets, experts say Alaska's salmon industry must strive for the quality standards set by farmed salmon producers.
Says UAF's Doyle, "Quality must come first before we can have penetration back into the market. We have to produce a better product before we can expect higher prices. That's the bottom line."
State laws being contemplated by some Alaska legislators could force fishermen and processors to improve salmon quality. "We've been talking to people from the University of Alaska, the Sea Grant Program, and industry, and are looking into what is being done in other states," says Rep. Mark Hanley (R-Anchorage).
He has been a crew member on a Bristol Bay gillnet vessel for the last 12 years and has a degree in business and finance. Hanley also owns the 32-foot gillnetter Anna Stasia, a Homer-based vessel he has equipped for halibut fishing.
"I think we'll see some bills promoting salmon quality in the Legislature this year," says Hanley. "One of the things we may consider is changing the law that restricts the length of salmon vessels. This may encourage more vessels to carry chilling equipment." Another concern lawmakers may address is sanitary conditions aboard fishing vessels, tenders and in processing plants.
But not everyone is excited about the prospect of new seafood handling and quality laws. "I'm not in favor of the Alaska Legislature making new laws on this," says Rick Lauber, vice president of the Seattle-based Pacific Seafood Processors Association and member of a salmon task force created by Gov. Walter Hickel. Lauber also is chair of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, a government-industry council that manages fisheries in federal waters off Alaska.
"They ought to take a look at it, but they should also look at the downside," says Lauber. "Changing the maximum size of fishing boats would make thousands of vessels obsolete."
Lauber believes quality is an issue that has been blown out of proportion. He views Alaska's market declines as more the result of overproduction in an already salmon-glutted world rather than a serious problem with quality.
"Quality is a concern," says Lauber. "But it's not the real problem. I've seen a lot of money over the years go into salmon hatchery production, but not much money spent on marketing. We are going to have to change policy and begin to market more aggressively."
Fisheries management policy also may see change, legislators say. Legislators are considering asking the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Board of Fish to shorten salmon openings, a move aimed at encouraging fishermen to take their catch to the processor more quickly. The move would be one solution to the shortage of chilling systems on fishing vessels.
"Shorter openings may be considered as a way to reduce fish spoilage," says Hanley. "The problem is that a lot of salmon caught in the first few hours of an opener sit in the hold for 17 hours before being delivered to the processor. We may see something like a four-hour opener, followed by a six-hour closure, then another four-hour opener."
That scheme might help, says Doyle. "I know that fisheries managers are considering product quality more in their management decisions. I suspect managers will make quality more of a consideration in the future."
Regardless of steps taken by government or industry, the final judge of Alaska's salmon will be the consumer. With so much salmon on the market, consumers likely will become increasingly selective. The power of the consumer to choose -- more than any other single factor -- may be what forces Alaska's fishermen and processors to change.
"Competition is a hard lesson to learn," says Mark Herrmann, a University of Alaska Fairbanks resource economist who more than three years ago helped predict lower salmon prices and more competition for Alaska. "Fishermen are excellent at fishing. Now they need to realize that consumers are their bosses."
The Alaska Sea Grant Program offers several booklets describing the results of seafood quality research and ways fishermen can improve the quality of their catch. The publications are available by contacting Alaska Sea Grant, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 138 Irving IIX, Fairbanks, AK 99775, or call 474-6707.
Quality Control From Sea To Table: The Canadian Model
In Canada, salmon quality is tracked from the time the fish hits the net, thanks to a national seafood inspection program that could serve as a model for changes contemplated by Alaska.
Between 1986 and 1990, seafood inspectors from Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) made routine sanitary inspections of fishing vessels. Inspectors checked for such things as cleanliness of the fish holds, fuel leaks, adequate insulation of holds and even the kind of paint used on board to guard against contamination of the catch. Depending on what they found, DFO inspectors either refused permits or gave permits for one, two or four years. Vessels with the fewest problems received the multiyear permits.
On shore, DFO inspectors roamed processing plants, checking salmon quality at key stages, and monitored sanitary conditions. Inspectors oversaw the delivery of raw product to the plant, production conditions, quality of finished products and worker/workplace hygiene.
In 1990, DFO officials and the seafood industry developed new, more stringent, guidelines under its Quality Management Program for fish processors. DFO inspectors would continue to inspect and license fishing vessels, but seafood processing plants with good reputations for quality would conduct their own inspections. The program is widely supported by industry, which wants less government control, and by government, which wants to concentrate enforcement efforts on remaining substandard plants.
"We're not washing our hands of this," says Don Wilson, DFO's facilities inspection programs officer. "We want to free up the plants that will do quality control checks whether we are there or not. We will continue to inspect. It just won't be as often because we are confident in their operations."
The Canadian Quality Management Program standards have been voluntary since they came out in April 1990. They were expected to be made mandatory by the Canadian Parliament in February 1992.
"The difference between our standards and Alaska's is that our will be mandatory," says Wilson. "Alaska processors, with their voluntary guidelines, can still operate if they don't follow them. Our plants would be closed for non-compliance."
In return for industry cooperation, the best processing plants will be allowed to promote their products as having a federal inspection seal. Canada's commitment to quality has meant better prices for its salmon, according to DFO officials.
The new standards also give Canadian salmon a competitive edge in European Economic Community markets. New EEC standards soon will require that imports of seafood be inspected by the government of the nation of origin.
While the new Canadian standards were expected to take effect last month, the United States is still years away from implementation of its own national seafood safety and quality standards. Presently, processing operations in Alaska must register with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, which conducts visual inspections of seafood and processing operations. Non-compliance typically means seafood is detained, but processors rarely are shut down.
Until recently, the department's inspectors took an estimated 300,000 pounds of salmon off the market each year because of unsanitary plant conditions, although last year the total was closer to just 1,000 pounds. Department of Environmental Conservation officials credit the dramatic reduction to increased awareness among processors. Currently, there is no state inspection or licensing program for fishing vessels.
Experts say that while waiting for national standards, Alaska could benefit from adopting its own tough mandatory standards for fishing vessels and processors to bolster Alaska's reputation as a source of clean, safe seafood.