Coming Soon: Salmon Burgers, Nuggets, Chowders From Alaska's Un-Farmed Fish

A GLEAMING rectangular machine with assorted funnels and spouts is the pride of the University of Alaska's Fishery Industrial Technology Center here. Into the machine, called an ``extruder,'' fish chunks are fed; out squirts diced meat, in cooked and ready-to-package units.

This, experts insist, is the future of an Alaska salmon industry that has been hard hit by two trends in recent years:

* Americans increasingly want to eat convenient, prepackaged foods. ``The problem with selling fish is, in this country specifically, people don't like to cook it at home,'' said Gour Choudhury, an assistant professor of seafood engineering at the gleaming facility nicknamed ``Fish Tech.''

* The world salmon market is being flooded by a wave of fish raised on farms, mainly in Chile, Norway, and British Columbia but also in Washington State and Maine. Even though connoisseurs generally consider wild Alaska salmon - especially such strains as Copper River reds and Yukon River kings - to be the world's best, farmed salmon has many attractions. It can be supplied year-round at the size demanded by the market, tailored for customers, and handled gently throughout production and transit.

That contrasts with the rush in southwestern Alaska's Bristol Bay, site of the world's largest sockeye salmon run, where harried and sometimes sleep-deprived fishermen have trouble pampering a harvest that occurs within three or four weeks.

To keep up, Alaska has boosted production with a sophisticated system of hatcheries and careful fisheries management. Except for the spectacular failure of Prince William Sound's pink salmon run, which many fishermen blame on lingering effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, Alaska's salmon stocks are now generally healthy.

This year's statewide salmon harvest was 184 million fish, the second-highest on record. But prices to fishermen have dropped to an average 62 cents a pound this year for Bristol Bay sockeye, for example, compared to $1.03 a pound last year and nearly $3 a pound in 1988, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says.

To reverse the decline of its salmon industry, Alaskans are working hard to come up with new markets and new products for the fish.

At Fish Tech, situated by a scenic bay near the docks of one of the nation's busiest seafood ports, scientists have launched several experiments. They are investigating ready-made meals - pasteurized, precooked dinners preserved in unrefrigerated vacuum-sealed packages known in the business as the ``sous-vide'' process. In their laboratories, they perform taste tests, shelf-life tests, and tests of minced fish meat, fish blocks, and product ideas, such as salmon p.

Across the bridge in downtown Kodiak, the local McDonald's franchise plans in late November to serve pink-salmon burgers, an item perfected by Fish Tech scientists and offered at no other McDonald's menu in the nation. One Alaska company has placed ``salmon ham,'' small ovals of packed, cooked, minced salmon, in Alaska grocery stores.

The Cordova-based Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation, which operates hatcheries in Prince William Sound, has contracted with a Maine company to experiment with hatchery salmon. Already, 143,000 pounds of fish has been contributed to the project, expected to produce caviar, skinned fillets, nuggets, chowder, and salmon spread.

But such experiments may not produce any commercially viable products, says Donna Parker, a fisheries specialist with the Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development. In 1987, for example, Hormel spent $6 million trying to develop a boneless, skinless salmon product - with no commercial success.

``The industry remembers that,'' she said at a recent conference in Anchorage. ``Changes are not going to be done alone by some groups of fishermen and processors that have a lot of vision and initiative.''

Many in the Alaska salmon business are asking for government help. Among the steps under discussion are subsidies, cooperative ventures, and the lifting of antitrust restrictions so that suppliers can set long-term prices and processors can invest jointly in expensive equipment.

A bill now in the state Legislature would create a $50 million seafood-product development fund, with annual income of $3 million to $5 million available for consumer and manufacture surveys and Fish Tech tests.

This year, the Legislature slapped a new 1 percent tax on commercial salmon harvests to fund a marketing program. Expected revenues for the first year are $3.5 million, said Kim Elton, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

But Alaska's promotional spending for salmon may not do much good - it only equals half of what Washington State spends to tout its apples.

Alaska fishermen have their own way of fighting back against competitors. Bumper stickers in coastal towns proclaim, ``Real Fish Don't Eat Pellets.''

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