Salmon trollers' gourmet market threatened by fish farmers. Trollers mount drive to foster preference for ocean-caught salmon

West Coast troll fishermen don't have it easy. In small boats these independent commercial fishermen roam the northern Pacific Ocean from Puget Sound to the Gulf of Alaska hunting salmon with hook and line.

But their right to harvest the fish populations has been challenged by Canadians and Indians. Environmental destruction and overharvesting have threatened fish stocks. A strong United States dollar hurt exports at a time when the foreign salmon harvest was increasing.

And now, an even graver peril to the industry has emerged - fish farmers who rear salmon in pens and who can deliver fresh, uniform fish virtually anywhere within 48 hours.

Troll fishermen have carved a niche for themselves, catering to ``gourmet'' markets. By catching and handling valuable king and coho salmon individually, rather than in nets, they offer a product suitable for sale to European smokehouses and American ``white tablecloth'' restaurants.

These are the markets fish farmers recently entered and now threaten to dominate. Troll fishermen worry that the sheer numbers of pen-reared salmon will force prices so low that the trollers will be driven out of business.

``By 1990, salmon farmers will produce about 100,000 metric tons of fish,'' says Barry Lester, director of the Alaska Troll Salmon Processors Association (ATSPA). While that represents only 15 percent of the total salmon harvest, it would be at least 10 times the amount that the 1,200 Pacific salmon trollers would be expected to catch, Mr. Lester said. Last year trollers hooked 7,000 metric tons of salmon.

To fight back, the ATSPA is mounting a campaign that aims to create a market preference for wild, ocean-caught salmon.

A promotional campaign set to begin early next year will try to raise awareness of the virtues of wild Alaska salmon, thereby making it more competitive with pen-reared fish for a spot on the menus of some of the country's finest restaurants.

``We want to demonstrate whether the market is willing to pay the price for guaranteed quality, premium Alaska frozen salmon,'' said William Woolf, deputy director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, a cooperative venture between the north Pacific seafood industry and the state of Alaska.

The promotions, Mr. Woolf said, will emphasize that Alaska salmon feed on natural foods and are leaner than pen-reared fish, thus more healthful.

``Frozen [fish] can be fresher,'' he said. ``If you handle the fish [properly] you can stop deterioration almost as soon as you take it out of the water.''

A big part of the campaign is convincing buyers that salmon processors are handling the fish properly.

Alaska troll-caught salmon will carry ``designer'' labels, indicating their origin and promising quality-minded care, Woolf said.

But success is by no means assured.

Until recently, Lester said, 70 percent of the farmed fish came from Norway, but Japan, New Zealand, Chile, Scotland, and, most recently, Canada, have entered into salmon rearing.

Opposition from waterfront-property owners, environmentalists, boaters, and other recreationistshas so far kept the fish-farming industry from taking hold in the US.

The reason fish farms succeed is simple. Pen-raised salmon are available year-round. The fish are harvested at a uniform size, carefully handled, chilled, and rushed fresh to buyers.

Confined all their lives to a bay or fiord, the fish are nourished by pellets, usually dispensed from feed jugs above their pens. This gives them a milder taste than wild salmon.

Pen-raised salmon are not to be confused with hatchery-reared fish. Hatcheries, which are common in the US, are designed to produce salmon artificially and rear them until they reach ``fingerling'' size. Then the fish are released into the ocean, where they grow until it is time for them to return toward land to spawn, and where many of them are caught by commercial, sport, and subsistence fishermen.

Worldwide fish consumption is growing. But that could spell trouble for the Pacific troll fishers. Increased demand is bringing more fish farmers into the industry. For troll fishermen and processors, the time has arrived to foster a demand for wild salmon.

``I'd say it's vital to our survival,'' Lester says.

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