For Alaska salmon fishermen, price - not supply - rankles

Competition from farm-raised salmon has Alaska campaigning that its fish are environmentally friendly.

Peering out across a lonely wharf, Sue Aspelund cannot hide the envy in her voice as she explains that most of her neighbors have gone to sea for the start of the commercial fishing season.

Weeks ago, vessels both large and small left Cordova in search of wild Copper River kings, a famous breed of fish coveted by chefs and gourmets around the world for their distinctive, savory flavor.

The salmon runs are on, but even with the promise of hefty catches of kings, cohos, and sockeyes waiting in the Pacific Ocean, it's unclear whether Cordova's main industry can stay afloat, says Ms. Aspelund, executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United, an industry advocacy group.

Last year, a crisis struck this and other fishing villages throughout the Gulf of Alaska. The problem wasn't lack of wild fish, but a glut of farm-raised salmon from the Lower 48, Canada, Chile, Norway, and Scotland, that sent prices into a nosedive.

Many boat captains were pushed near bankruptcy and the governor declared an economic disaster.

In part, the success of farm-raised salmon has been aided by a marketing campaign that has convinced increasingly green-minded consumers that farm-raised fish is an environmentally friendly alternative to fishing for salmon in a world where ocean-fish populations are seriously depleted or jeopardized by overharvesting.

But the shift is a blow for Alaskan fishermen who have supported strict regulations imposed by the state to conserve the five major species of wild salmon. As patient stewards, the fishermen have seen fish numbers rebound but their industry hasn't been able to compete with abundant farm supplies from British Columbia and Maine.

The issue is vital for towns such as Cordova, where 75 cents of every dollar generated is directly related to the commercial fishing industry. Not all of it comes from wild salmon but a sizable percentage does. Last year, the commercial fishing industry in Alaska netted $283 million, down from the year before, and continuing a negative trend attributed to competition from fish farms.

Now, aided by a federal relief package exceeding $35 million, the industry is fighting back by gathering together an unusual coalition of environmentalists as part of a marketing campaign to convince consumers to purchase Alaskan salmon.

A new initiative, crafted by US Sen. Ted Stevens in conjunction with the fishing industry, intends to officially classify wild Alaskan salmon as "organic" on supermarket shelves, while forcing the competition to spell out for consumers how it was raised.

Environmental debate

On that front, the Alaskan fishermen have allies in the form of some environmentalists, such as Anne Mosness with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, which backs a campaign called "Go Wild!"

Ms. Mosness points to studies that claim to have identified huge effluent problems associated with fish farms. Further, some advocates say the food used by fish farms comes from mining vast quantities of smaller fish and sometimes contains dioxins and other pollutants. Moreover, farm-raised salmon can escape, threatening the genetic integrity of wild fish and competing with wild salmon for habitat in the ocean.

"All we can do is educate, educate, educate," says Aspelund.

For their part, fish farmers say they are serving up a responsible product that consumers want. Throughout the 1990s, indeed, environmentalists told consumers to buy Atlantic farm-raised salmon as a way of taking pressure off wild fish populations in the sea.

In the months ahead, an assemblage of nontraditional allies tries to shift consumer attitudes, telling fish lovers in the Lower 48 that eating wild Alaskan salmon is good for health, good for the environment, and good for mom-and-pop fishermen.

"When you buy wild salmon from Alaska, you're not only buying an excellent product, you're supporting an excellent cause," says Tim Bristol, executive director of the Alaska Coalition.

The coalition represents 700 different groups, including conservation, sporting, religious, and labor organizations interested in protecting the environment.

In the Lower 48 states, Bristol says, loss of prime salmon habitat to dam building, intense logging, residential development, and pollution not only caused wild-salmon populations to decline but it enabled the farmed salmon industry to flourish.

Rise of fish farms in British Columbia

Perhaps the most direct competition for Alaska fishermen is coming from farmed Atlantic salmon being raised in the Pacific waters off British Columbia. At present, the province has about 80 salmon aquaculture projects and the number could double by the end of the decade.

Alaskan fishermen not long ago earned dollars per pound for their product, but competition from fish farms has forced them to sell for less. But a year ago, fishermen in Bristol Bay, Alaska, reported receiving just 40 cents a pound for their salmon, the lowest in quarter century.

But fishing advocates hope their new campaign can turn that trend around.

"The wild salmon coming out of Alaska is just as nature intended it," Bristol says. "The industry here deserves credit [for healthy fish populations] and the proof is in the run sizes year after year."

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