Saturday, July 30, 2005

Blogging tech, etc.

I realized that I have to keep making this blog user friendly. Hence the list of posts on Alaska Report instead of the entire last post then the next to the last. That in itself, increased viewing time by about a minute and a half in the last week. (The software measures average views to the second. so it changes by the hour.) Viewing time, too, has increased, from a minute 27 seconds on about the 8th of July to 4:31 today.

The traffic prediction feature has thousands of you viewers coming to my blog in the next month. And for that I thank you. Although I'm doing it for you in the hopes that it helps you do better what you are doing: keep from making other people's mistakes again, navigate around the reefs, and in general try help make seafood development a little more like running up Chatham Straits than running up Wrangell Narrows.

I've been more than pleased at your response to this blog and in return will endeavour to make it easier to use, nicer to look at, and more to the point all the time. This didn't start out to be what it's becoming, but there seems to be a need for this kind of commentary. A lot of folks in the industry now don't have the benefit ofseeing the last fifty years of goings on the the industry from a front row seat.

A lot of good news items that are vital to the industry seem to be a flash in the pan and then you don't hear about them again for way too long. A lot of folks miss the choice items when they come out in the news or they don't make the news at all. I'll keep up the refrain on some of these that have the most potential to change things for the better.

Watching "Up Close and Personal" with Robert Redford and Michelle Pfieffer last night reminded me that it's not about the reporter, but about the story. The story deserves to be told straight: no spins and no errors, including errors of omission. And analyzing the correlations that news reporters, without the benefit of industry experience, miss.

Take for example the business of Alaska Commissioner of Commerce Blatchford taking another state job because he engaged in too many improprieties as Commissioner. Numerous people were quoted as for and against his being hired to run the Seattle office for ASMI. But notice who was incensed and who was complacent. The private sector vs the government sector. The issue is what makes state government think they canbe more effective in seafood marketing than the industry itself.

Government employees aren't accountable enough to satisfy the needs of industry. They also are more political, which is the anti-thesis of free enterprise. And free-enterprise is the pond the industry swims in. Thank goodness the industry has seafood development associations coming on line to pick up the ball that the state has dropped.

But back to blogging. Last week when I was blogging on cold storages, the time zones in Alaska finally caught up with the West Coast in readership. It'll be a challenge to keep the Alaskans interested. I think that I'll catch up on miscellaneous things on the weekends and keep the heavy stuff for the weekdays when readership is up.

And you can always download Opera, get a good wireless headset and listen to my blog while walking around doing other things, provided your computer has a wireless chip in it. That can be easily accomplished if you don't. My archives are filling up fast at the rate I'm writing so you might want to consider this. And if I had sales people running around, I'd have them read this blog to get a rounded education.

As a final note, I don't know how the dungie fishermen are doing in Alaska, but it was a record year down here. It'll be interesting to see how the numbers compare at the end of the seasons. The thing is, fishermen just have to go out when the season opens and give it what for, no matter what the projections are. It's for other folks to deal with the surplus or shortage of product. I've heard it said that the Willamette Valley in Oregon is the best "next year" place to farm. The point? There's no giving up on what you gotta do.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

"Rationalization" in the ports

National Fisherman magazine editorials don't usually pique my interest. They usually are dealing with a obsucure clam species on the East Coast or shrimp fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. Not much is said of issues that affect the underlying malise of the Alaskan fisherman's life. But this piece by Jerry Frazier sounded a note that harmonized with one that has been echoing around in my head for a long time. (Turns out the Editors Log piece I wanted, I couldn't link to, so I threw in another one as a consolation prize. It's good too, has to do with missing marketing opportunities galore by just focusing on "wild.")

Jerry said, "Individual landowners aren't the only ones feeling the squeeze. Net lofts, boatyards, fish houses and other gritty enterprises cannot compete with condominiums or harbor walks littered with trendy restaurants and boutiques in the eyes of developers. Thus, the infrastructure on which an entire fleet depends is at risk."

When I was at the State, doing a Capital Project in Fisheries Infrastructure Development, I made some inquiries into the placement of a University training facility in prime waterfront space. There was a dock there with a hoist that was available to fishermen and processors. And an ice machine and ice storage van sandwiched in. I had just previously run the only working cold storage in Juneau and we used these premises as one of our three offloading sites. But the bulk of the area was dominated by a marine trades educational facility. You could haul out your boat there, but I only saw derelicts up on blocks, for some reason.

The area would have made a perfect place for a processing plant or expanded vessel maintenance facility. But, alas, the University wasn't about to move their classes out to their main campus. They were there and that justified being there. I wasn't around when Juneau approved that move and there wasn't a position like mine around at the time either, to be a watchdog for the seafood industry.

The fish processors that were getting a foot-hold in Juneau at the time were relegated to industrial strip malls out the road, or in our case, a former airplane hangar where they used to haul up seaplanes for maintenance. (One of the small processors, with a real shrewd owner/operator, finally broke into a traditional downtown location near where the old Juneau Cold Storage had been.) I think some of this had to do with the fact that some Douglasites wanted all the fishery industrial activity over on their side of the channel. So what, if the Taku winds blast the processing workers in the winter like a NASA wind tunnel.

When the Douglas Cold Storage burned down, then the way was open for Taku Smokeries to move downtown. Anyway that's my perception. I dabbled at opening the Douglas Cold Storage too, after leaving the State, but found one of the phase legs in the city transformer faulty. The city wouldn't do anything about it which made the whole plant an electrocution hazard. That was the final straw that soured me on the operations end of things. It's an uphill battle guys.

As Jerry Fraser laments, where does the degradation of the model of a successful fishing port end. When the crowd of wellwishers trample the performer? The European model came to this country and worked great for the fishing communities. The fishing related businesses: the hardware stores, the grocery stores, the processing plants, all clustered around a good harbor. When you start to depart from that model, you start to cut the legs out from under the fishermen and everyone dependent on them.

You could extrapolate this degradation to envision a waterfront that is slowly taken over by condos, pizza places, Mexican restraunts, and anybody else that just plain likes the water view. Not the least of these interlopers is the state government in Alaska. Look at where the Fish and Game Department locates their office buildings, in prime commercial waterfront locations. If Alaska state government wanted to put it's money where it mouth is, it would give up these locations to the seafood industry and not be a part of the problem. Like in "push, pull, or get out of the way."

Then you add putting in tour ship docks in the best downtown places so the tourists can walk around and oggle the dwindling number of fishermen wandering around in their sou'westers. Not to mention all the Tiawanese made trinkets being sold where you used to get a corkline or a prop zinc.

I use that example of the rain hat because I went on a junket to Halifax, Nova Scotia one time for research on a developing fishery. I had always wanted the chance to go there and see the historic downtown with all it's warehouses and fish processing houses. I was in for a rude shock. The office buildings marched right down to the water. There was one row of historic brick buildings with restraunts in them. Thank goodness at least they weren't Thai and Mexican restraunts.

I saw one person in two days there who looked like a fisherman. And, of course he had on a sou'wester rain hat, hence the analogy. He looked like one old batchelor fisherman in Petersburg who mostly just sat in the pilot house on his boat, in his oil-skins, looking lost, after halibut fishing went to the derby system.

The seafood industry in Alaska hasn't only had to deal with competition from fish farmers in Scotland, Norway, Chile and elsewhere, but with competition from city and state government, and with developers and non-related businesses of all sorts.

I don't think "rationalization" is a term that should be bandied about normally. So far, thankfully, it has only been used to justify the large processing plant owners out to Westward, AKA, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, securing a piece of the action by law, instead of by the free enterprise system. But there needs to be rationalization in the ports. Sticking to the time tested model of a successful fishing port is not only rational but essential.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Where do cold storages go from here?

Now that I've laid out all the pitfalls of cold storages, I'm obliged to say a good word about them and their potential future in the mix of infrastructure in the seafood industry. There has been some shining examples of cold storage operations in Alaska and some of the brightest have been operated or owned by Tom Thompson.

Tom grew up in Petersburg, the son of a fish buyer at the Petersburg Cold Storage, Knut Thompson. I have some fond memories of Knut and Tom from growing up with Tom's boys, Harold and Mark. Harold eventually became the manager of the Thompson family operation, Sitka Sound Seafoods. But Tom started working in the Petersburg public ccold storage when he was a young man and continued when the buying operation became Knut Thompson and Son.

Tom became manager of the entire cold storage after his father died and then it was merged with Petersburg Fisheries. That was some real hard-ball with the stockholders, but that's not relevant here. The big cannery in Petersburg needed a cold storage to freeze the cohos and chums it's seiners were bringing in. Under Tom's leadership, the cold storage extended it's buying reach out with the placement of self-contained buying stations for troll fish and halibut.

He was one in a hundred. A guy you just know is in his niche in life. It's a rough and tumble game and Tom was a master at it. He ablsolutely loved the business. He could talk recovery rates and handling costs per pound for all the steps in the process for any specie, materials costs per pound, and overhead costs per pound, etc. That was his language. The language of cold storages.

He knew and was well liked by everyone in the industry. And he was innovative and had a grasp of all facets of the industry. He fit in with the old school operators but he also had an eye on the future, a future with value adding. He started doing some value adding in a new public facility in Sitka he helped get a grant for. Then he started having health problems and sold the Sitka and Yakutat operations to a big Canadian east coast company.

Where am I going with this? The cold storages Tom ran were successful because they were run by Tom Thompson. The cold storage in Sitka didn't run for years until Tom bought it. Nothing much was going on in Yakutat either until Tom went there. At the end of his career he was getting into smoking fish and making infomercials and flying fresh fish to Seattle, where he had a sales office. That should tell you something about where he saw things going.

Now companies like Norquest in Ketchikan and the Metlakatla cold storage are picking up the ball. Not that there hasn't been a lot of small scale smokers and salmon sausage makers in Alaska. But among the larger cold storages, there hasn't been much innovation until now.

Norquest doesn't can fish in it's cold storage plant in Ketchikan, they are looking to expand capacity and profit margins by teaming up with Chicken of the Sea. Notice that the brand name is all that is used in public by Chicken of the Sea. Do consumers care where their product comes from? Peter Pan, is another and even their plants have always been known by that brand name. And the list goes on, until you get to the smaller cold storages. Why is that? Branding is king in the food business. To compete without one is russian roulette any more.

Cold storages have a lot of opportunities, but without being associated with a brand, it like going backward thirty years. The Regional Seafood Development Associations hold a lot of promise for small cold storages looking to associate themselves with a large brand. Keeping in mind that a cold storage is just an instrument to process fish, period.

Small public cold storages, especially, can kill two birds with one gaff hook by associating themselves with the Regional Association. The fishermen that wanted the cold storage in the first place will join the association for brand identity, and the association of fishermen in the region get another piece of infrastructure to diversify operations. Several small cold storages operated by one association can do one type of product in one and another product in another to better expand into niche markets.

Ocean Beauty has cold storages throughout Alaska and is working hard to capture the Military market and more. This technology they are utilizing has more promise than you can shake a stick at. It offers a solution for cold storages to make a finished product from their pinks, which has always been a bugagoo for them. Their fishermen need to bring them in because they dominate the catch in mid July to mid August. A plant has to be able to take everything a fisherman can catch. You start to break away from a relationship with an established buyer and they will likely say, "You don't sell your sockeye and coho to us, so don't bother bringing your pinks and chums around."

Quick cooking salmon by powerful microwaves in plastic trays is a wonderful idea. With Senator Murkowski behind it, it's bound to go. With her, you get the whole Alaska delegation and of course, Governor Murkowski. This technology is a no brainer and will be great for mom and pop canneries, cold storages of all stripes and large canneries. The Fisheries Industrial Technology Center in Kodiak has the capability to do this kind of process but I found out in the late 80s that their Risk Manager in Fairbanks won't let them certify a process. We might have been cooking pinks this way, or at least in the 28 different kinds of aluminum cans the Scandinavian seamer will do, for the last ten years or twenty years.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Anchorage Cold Storage lesson

When I was working at the Alaska Commercial Fishing and Agriculture Bank in Anchorage, I was asked to review a proposal for a cold storage at the International Airport. This was in about 1985. It called for a massive facility that would process fish from all over the North Pacific; Prince Willian Sound, Cook Inlet, Bristol Bay and even out on the Alaska Peninsula. That was the extent of it.

There was no discussion to explain how the fish were going to magically appear at the front door of the cold storage. There was no discussion of what fishermen would be willing to supply the fish, or what other processing plant owners would cooperate to lighten their own work load. I had worked in every area of the state by then, and even Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay. I couldn't see where they were going with the project, but worse, they would have had to get every participant in the industry to change their modus operandi. Even the shore workers would have to relocate.

Needless to say I was incensed, so the management of the Bank had another loan officer write the decline letter so it would sound polite. Maybe we shouldn't have been so polite. It was a foray by the Danes and they had an Anchorage front man who was just a patsy. It could have been nipped in the bud right then and saved Alaskans $25 million that could have been spent on many other fisheries related projects that were, and still are, underfunded.

These things never get DISCOURAGED because nobody wants to be percieved as the devils advocate. Allowing such projects to take on any life of their own is a crime in my book. Fleecing the taxpayer doesn't seem to be a crime though. So, the Danes kept pushing the project; slowly but surely, like the proverbial pot of water on the stove with the frog in it. The Danes wanted to sell their fish processing equipment and also market the finished product. And at that time, there wasn't a market for many valued-added fish products in this country. Maybe in Denmark there was and they thought we should eat roll mops (pickled herring) for breakfast like the Europeans.

After the passage of the 200 mile limit law, the Danes saw Alaska as fertile ground to sell their seafood industry expertise and their machinery. My father was being used by the State as a bottom-fish expert in those early years of our ground-fish sector and so he went with a delegation to Denmark. Those Danes really rolled out the red carpet: dinner at the Queens castle and all. A nice Old World charm, but it didn't fool many people I knew.

The Dane that was assigned to push the project moved to Anchorage to live and I met him for coffee in about '93. The paper proposal was getting thicker, but I still didn't see anything that had changed. Also there was no shift toward more air transport. (More on that tomorrow.) Then my optomitrist, who was on the City Council, bubbled about how they were running a big water main out to the proposed site. I just about had heart failure right in his examination chair. I could see the project was at the point of no return. Anchorage had to talk the State into it then.

So up to now the Danes, who didn't know or care about our distribution system that had evolved over 100 years, had used a shill, some Councillors who had never set foot anywhere in the seafood industry, and were now zeroing in on state government. I had already seen the Department of Commerce fund a dock in Homer for a factory trawl company who obviously, to me, had to fish in the Bering Sea. Naturally, it was never used to land one fish, except maybe by some twelve year olds with fishing poles.

When you get to using economic development types instead of seafood industry types, you get one wild and wooly ride. And an expensive one. And one that just bucks you off. Credentials aren't necessary in this arena. The goal is to build something to stick on your resume, whether it works or not. This is politics. Like in, if you vote for my project, I'll vote for yours. But back up one step. In economic development there's chiefly only the project at hand, being pushed by people with unclear motives, and mostly not altruistic and knowledge based.

I think the wild days of a lot of oil money to throw around are behind us, but the lessons haven't all been learned. Conversations like on the Internet will go a long way to remedy making the same old mistakes all the time. Blogging especially has made this is a new world, exposed to the light of day. Just ask Dan Rather.

Anyway, the Anchorage Cold Storage was funded and some processing machinery brought in, but that's as far as it went. In a de ja vu all over again scenario, I was asked by the Economic Development Administration to comment on a plan, by U of A folks, to resurrect the plant. About that time it was announced it was being sold for scrap, so to speak.

I just don't understand wanting to climb aboard a project when you don't know the history of the captain, crew and ship. Whether the ship has been maintained, the captain hit a few too many rocks, the crew is experienced, no creeks have been robbed in the past, the captain has a good catch record, there aren't any partners that are "running the boat from the dock," and etc. You'll see the people with the most experience wanting answers, folks with just some fishing experience straddling the fence or giving the benefit of the doubt, and folks with little to no experience in cold storage operations and related strategic planning, being outspoken proponents.

"Remember the concept of the red flag if you don't remember anything else." Petersburg City Councilors in 1990 will remember me saying that at the end of a talk on Fisheries Infrastructure. Two minutes into the following Council Meeting, they nixed a plan to incinerate garbage that must have had red flags all over it.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Cold Storages, Part III

If this is going to be a series, I might as well call it that. This blogging creates a synergy that's amazing too. Folks give you bits of information, other columnists pick up on your discussion and add a column of their own and they fill in some of the blanks. It's all really healthy. So in this vein I saw a column in the Ketchikan Daily News about the Metlakatla Cold Storage, who doesn't put their paper online for some reason.

The point of the article was about workers not getting their weekly checks. I don't know why that's so newsworthy since most everyone else gets paid bi-monthly. But there was some interesting stuff in there, and the punch line was "Everyone pulls together." I wish the Petersburg bunch would all read that article. From the Pilot report I saw, everyone is pulling in different directions like they've got hold of an Eskimo trampoline.

There were other good bits of advice for everyone in the KDN article. The Metlakatla cold storage is rearranging the layout of the plant full bore to accomodate portion cutting machines. Didn't Petersburg say they didn't want to do any value adding? Hey, these Metlakatlans are moving fast to keep pace with the modern world, they bear watching. And yes, Fish Factor, you get your wish. " Portion control is coming to a plant near you."

Actually, Norquest already has been there and done that with their portioned, smoked, and microwaved pink salmon fillets. Norquest knows what it's doing partnering with a large outside brand. And Bristol Bay got a gem when they got a Norquest founder, Bob Waldrop, to run their Regional Seafood Development Association. Although if Bob was a little more up on the U.S. experience with food producer associations, he would be a lot more confident of the outcome.

Portion control thechnology isn't new by any means. I saw it in operation at SeaFreeze in Seattle in the mid 80s. That is, computer controlled water jets cutting frozen fish fillets into exacting portions. A scanner, like the one you see in the grocery stores, except with numerous laser beams, "weighs" a portion out of a fillet and whacks it off there. You could even program the cutter to make little boat shapes, smoke them and put them in cheerios. Just kidding. The point is, imagination and homework has been in a lot shorter supply than technology in the seafood industry.

But like Bob Waldrop said, fishermen get excited when they know what the possibilities are. The Metlakatla cold storage is part of a larger operation that includes a cannery. It's all run by fishermen and plant workers and others in the community. It's a pretty good model. They are looking hard at keeping the cold storage open year around, and I'm betting they'll do it.

It helps to have the fishermen involved in the marketing and product development. Here's an example. I was helping get a whole, round fresh cod market established in Korea and some fishermen to supply the fish. Well, the Koreans want the fish for a traditional New Years dish, which means you have to fish around Christmastime. So the fishermen sent in a few loads and then, nothing. I finally found out that the fishermen knocked off for Christmas and no one knew when they would start up again. By the time they wanted to fish again the Koreans were gone.

It begs the question, how well would you cooperate if the survival of your community depended on it? When I was at the State, I remember some dire talk of relocating communities. I doubt that went to paper, but the point is, cooperation is not only fun, but healthy. Just like eating watermellon. Maybe some Metlakatla fishermen might not make much money fishing for some miscellaneous species in the winter, but the shore workers will be able to buy Christmas presents for their kids, and maybe even get a car to start driving to work like everyone else. The fishermen will be heros.

And contrary to what the State Department of Community and Economic Development says, there is a lot of guidance on what an Association can do for fishermen and the communities they live in. They must not have found the white paper I left there 15 years ago. I pretty much knew my paper would get "lost" when I came out with such a politically controversial concept back then. I just had to find other buttons to push over the years, little nudges in the end. But it took salmon ex-vessel prices dropping, like Laine Welch said, to get a Governor going. And Murkowski can take a lot of credit for being a leader about it.

I want to show how complicated such an endeavour as starting a cold storage (or an association) is. Just take Business Rules vs Process Rules. This white paper will really put you to sleep, but the proponents that understand the modern language of business are the ones that will succeed. Then these rules need to mesh with the Rules of other Partner Enterprises. For example, any cold storages will want to have Process Rules that mesh with Process Rules of the Regional Association and maybe even other cold storages, and certainly Safeway and the like. And they will need to understand the new technology available such as RFID.

Some folks at the Petersburg City Council meeting where the lease was approved were fishing for some Business Rules to look at. The Alaska experience has shown that it is easier to fail than to succeed in the cold storage business. Also remember the big Anchorage Cold Storage that the State lost 25 million dollars on. A new cold storage now will have to be tied to a larger project, such as the regional associations, for management, raw product, product forms, logistics and marketing.

There seems to be some magic in the word "cold storage" that gets people excited. Most of this comes from the euphoria of yesterday, when the Japanese had been kicked off the salmon and black cod grounds, the halibut started to rebound, the European market opened up, and salmon eggs brought in new revenue. Low fish prices from farmed salmon competition, the loss of the European frozen market, and Japanese economic conditions have changed the whole mix. And storing bait won't pay the bills.

"Fish jamm'n"

If you want to fly fish out of Alaska, you gotta know about "fish jamm'n" I'm not an expert on the subject, but I suppose Winky Crawford was if anyone was and I helped monitor his account at the Alaska Commercial Fishing and Agriculture Bank. Bill Blackmon and I went to Seattle one time to look at his planes. He had a Boeing 707, the kind that will split your ears, and is banned from U.S. airports. He also had an old Constellation that had belonged to the Admiral of the Navy.

The Constellation was sitting at a little field north of Seattle and the jet was at Boeing field. Neither would have even made a good anchor at that point, but maybe they had some value overseas. Winky was going to use them to fly hair crab from Dutch Harbor to Japan. The Connie was probably too hard to find mechanics for and the Japanese might not have wanted that unmuffled 707 over there either.

Flying off the beach above Egegik in Bristol Bay got a bad rap when one plane full of sockeye didn't make it off the beach. I think that kinda fouled up the beach for future flights, not to mention lenders willingness to finance such operations from then on. And that was a big plane I saw sitting out there on the beach. Looked like a DC-6. We were financing the Diamond E cannery at Egegik and I had to go out there occasionally. My daughter was almost born without me in Anchorage while I was poking around out there. But she was awful early too, and it didn't help that the President and me took off and nobody knew right away where I was.

I think this is where the term fish jamming came from. They would jam a plane full of sockeye, push the throttles to the firewall and hope for the best. It was a lot easier to make money in the fish business in the early 80s. When I was at the cold storage in Yakutat, we had a DC-3 to fly sockeye up from Dry Bay to the airport. We had a big flatbed to take them into the plant from there. I didn't see the Dry Bay end of things but I understand that was "jamm'n" at it's best.

Bruce would load up his plane on the little gravel strip by where they set-net. Then with all that plane could muster, it would head for the "mound" at the end of the strip, which would catapult the plane into the air. That's about all the altitude Bruce would get. He would then follow the coast up to the nearest river to the airport and come sneaking up through the cut in the trees. He might have even been using the "ground effect" for more lift. I don't think things are quite so wild and wooly anymore, that was 35 years ago.

Having a company plane around can come in real handy for other things too. Bruce had to airdrop supplies that year to a herring seiner we had sent into Russel Fjord to look for roe herring. Louie Busanich had caught the first roe herring in the state with a seine that spring fishing for us. But he had got himself in a pickle when Hubbard Glacier advanced and blocked his retreat out of the bay. (He spent a few weeks in there then put the family off on the beach to walk around the point while he ducked by the face of the glacier.)

Flying fish isn't nearly so colorful these days, but maybe a few analogies might help those wanting to get fresh or live fish out of Alaska. That old great fish plant operator, Tom Thompson, had set up a deal to fly chums from Kotzebue to Petersburg in the late 70s. Over at Whitney-Fidalgo, we were to get what PFI couldn't freeze, which was about half of it. So the Lockheed Electras and Hurcules' started to stream in. The fish quality wasn't that good considering they had sat in open skiffs and then in aluminum totes in a hot plane for who knows how long.

But is what stuck in my mind was that one pilot overflew Petersburg on one of those days the ceiling is at least twice as high as Devil's Thumb over on the mainland. He said there was too many clouds for an approach to a "box canyon" airport. That's never stopped any other pilot before or since. Someone said he had a date in Fairbanks he wanted to keep happy. I don't know where that plane offloaded, but someone took bath on that.

The last time Tom flew fish, that I know of anyway, he was operating a plant in Yakutat for himself and bought his own planes to fly fish to Seattle. He wasn't going to let anyone go sightseeing with his fish again.

Icicle Seafoods got my dad to go to Bristol Bay once to oversee helicoptering fish, from the tenders to the airport in King Salmon, to be loaded on bigger planes. That didn't last long either. The problem is keeping the fish cool on the tarmac. You get into this flying fish on Alaska Airlines too. They just drop off the Igloos on the tarmac and forget where they put them. You could have EPIRBs in the Igloos, but you'd still just watch them heat up in the sun. They don't care.

Icicle flys a lot of fish on Alaska Airlines, but they have a headquarters in Seattle to watch over the fish coming down. Alaska Air was still pulling this stunt as recently as this spring I hear. And of course, passengers take precedence over fish any day of the week with them.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Speaking of cold storages.

I just saw the Juneau Empire article on Kake's Chum Festival. Janet Sheldon was the coordinator of the festival this year and in my opinion, Kake couldn't have a better front person. She was the house mother of the bunkhouse when my dad and I were out there in '79 to get the cannery running for Petersburg Fisheries. I was assigned to get a buying station going for troll fish and halibut. Janet was a mother lode of levity and good sense.

Her husband is originally from Petersburg and taught me enough to get me into the trolling business. I got to repay him one year when he hung up his cannon balls at the entrance to Tebenkoff Bay and was within an inch of free-board from going down. I happened along and had the tool to cut his wires. He impressed on me how appreciative he was one Christmas Eve at the Trading Union open house, after a couple of Tom and Jerrys, while I was Julebakking down mainstreet. You just gotta experience Petersburg at Christmas sometime.

Excuse me, you probably are wondering what in the world is Julebakking. It's a Norwegian custom of going door to door and sharing in people's food delecacies and drinks. The Petersburg version has downtown businesses laying out a spread to kill for, for all comers. Don't let the word out too much though. Well, sticking to my reason for blogging: COLD STORAGES.

Kake has their big function in the summer, which also makes sense, seeing as how a celebration of the abundance of nature is such a cool thing to participate in. But I was saddened to see that they had closed their cold storage. It had been under construction when I was there.

Why did this cold storage close anyway? It is a muli-million dollar facility. Surely it could take on a life of it's own, build it and they will come, or something. Build it and then find a market for the fish? Here, the Kake cold storage closes down, the bigger historic cold storage in Pelican closes down, the Angoon cold storage never gets going, the Klawok cold storage sputters and then burns to the ground, and how could I forget Capitol Seafoods in Juneau, and now Petersburg and Wrangell are building small public cold storages.

(Public means nobody has made a proper study of the consequences.) That's kind of a cheap shot, but once I voted against a cold storage project out in the bush while at the State and they went ahead on 'er anyway. The next thing I know they're asking me to go out and get it going 'cuz nobody can make a go of it.

When I was writing the Small Processors Association white paper while at the State, I did a demonstration project with half a dozen fisheries related folks around the state. We started to have phone meetings and one of the first things I mentioned was that the Kake Cold Storage had closed. It didn't take much time at all before one Task Force member yielded the idea that got it going again. That was in 1991. In my mind that really put a feather in the cap of the association concept. Nobody else had stepped to the plate. This is the power of working together.

I could have put a question mark after Petersburg and Wrangell's initiatives, but that's not fair. I don't know their minds. Maybe someone has a game plan. I didn't have a game plan when I started blogging and I'm being syndicated all over the place now. I'm just throwing out a note of caution is all. Seafreeze is the biggest seafood cold storage that handles Alaska seafood and they couldn't see a way to build a cold storage in Dutch Harbor.

Folks took at least two cracks at justifying a public cold storage in Kodiak in the 80's and couldn't see black ink. The Ketchikan cold storage initiative didn't go as far as you could throw the proposal either. So, how many is that? I could list more too but it's getting kinda embarassing. This is the 21st century after all.

The PFI manager in Petersburg asked the sixty four dollar question, "what's your game plan and who is on your payroll," of the proponents of the 1/2 million lb storage facility. You know, that's not a lot of holding capacity either. It might be, if it was value-added product, but not whole frozen product. I know for a fact that there is an old school mind set floating around too. But to build a plant to produce a product when you don't know what that is going to be is.........., well, you fill in the blank.

I say, take a step back and look around. One of the biggest initiatives that has hit Alaska since TAPs is the Regional Seafood Development Associations. They have the blessing of the State now, so other projects funded with State funds should jive with them. They will be organizing full bore this fall after the fishing season. That's when any next step on any cold storage in Southeastern Alaska should take place .

After all, it's conceivable that all the fishermen in Petersburg might join the Southeastern RSDA and then the executive committee would be sitting in the driver's seat on behalf of all of them. They might even hire a Lee Iacocca type that everyone could listen to and just start opening up all these cold storages in one master plan that has some teeth to it. After all, that's the potential of a regional association and why state government is behind them.

The trouble with cold storages.

Back in the late sixties the ILWU held sway over the cold storage workers and the workers could make a good living at it. I started work at the Kayler-Dahl Fish Co. cold storage the second day after I graduated from High School. (It would have been the day after except two of us tried to get to Wrangell in a skiff to see some girls we knew. Alas, it got too rough.) It was good money in those days, especially when you helped load a ship with frozen halibut or salmon. Then you could make the true longshoring wages.

I put myself through college working mostly in the cold storages. Whitney-Fidalgo bought the plant in '69, so I started to work all over the state after that. I started out at $3.85 an hour and that was big money. Overtime made it even better. The union lost it's grip eventually and now it's not the life-style it once was. Ben Berkely was my dad's cold storage foreman and he and his crew taught me how to work. Ben worked as foreman for almost 25 years there. I think at times I was the only non-native of the whole bunch. They were a well oiled machine, I tell you. (Not the after-hours "oiled.")

Another notable on the cold storage gang was Dick Kuwata. He could head a salmon in half a second with one deft, curving thrust of his heading knife. He kept his knife razor sharp. We had to try to match his pace when it was our turn to head, which we never could. But we cut the heads off that certain way to both increase recovery and leave a little cartilage on the body to protect the flesh near the head.

Quality really went down hill when everyone switched to heading machines. The switch came after the union left and you couldn't get good headers anymore at cannery wages. The word was that the guillotines were faster. They weren't though, but it did allow seasonal labor to get the job done. The guillotines make a straight cut through flesh, leaving meat exposed to oxidation and contamination, if that's what you want.

We also fletched out a lot of halibut. There was a crew of women who did this job. They would winch one up by the tail and fillet off the most beautiful big fillets. We froze them in metal trays to give them a more rectangular shape for shipping in cartons. A lot of them were too big though so they were frozen like the rest of the fish in the plate freezer.

Our company got the contract to run the new Yakutat cold storage when I was a junior in college, so I volunteered to go. I took my Harley-Davidson 250 to run on the ocean beaches. Like a lot of start-ups, Whitney didn't have seasoned management at the plant, so by default, I found myself kinda running the fish-house. We were getting a lot of halibut and fletching became a problem.

The bottleneck started before the season even started, when the accountant left all the 1,800 lb cardboard totes that were for the big halibut out in the rain. He figured we could make more money fletching so he purposely ruined the totes. I felt I had to tell the crew to fletch down to the 60 -80s. We really got screwed up then. We iced huge piles of fish on the floor, until my dad came up from Petersburg and explained a lot more of the details of running a cold storage to our manager. After all, my dad had started working in them when he was 13, back in about '28

There's nothing like having that depth of experience around. You can get in a jack-pot in a hurry and then it all goes down the tube and you're finished. I ran a plant in Juneau for a guy once because he had just had a heart attack. He didn't watch his recovery rates and equipment cost the first year, then he got sick. He got me to come to Juneau and dig the plant out of the snow, start it up as a going concern, and process tanners, all in two weeks time.

I got light years more recovery from the crab than he did the year before, just by weighing the catch, AFTER butchering. You gotta have the experience to be creative to make things work. Well, after I caught them up on their fish taxes, which they couldn't pay any of the year before, they figured they could manage by themselves. I went to work for the State after a little vacation and they went quietly into the night of bankruptcy by the middle of the summer.

But check out this URL about a cold storage project that I keep hearing about. It's in Petersburg and give them some credit, they are all passionate, one way or the other, or passionate about not knowing what to be passionate about. I'll have to write some more on cold storages later. I can be passionate about them because I left a lot of sweat and a little blood in them. No, now I recall it was a good deal of the latter one place.

I gotta make one comment on plant design, since Petersburg is going ahead on the design phase, after the City committed to leasing 8,400 square feet of filled tidelands. The plant in Yakutat had been designed by that old salt, Chris Dahl, and called for the plant to be adjacent to the dock. Someone in Washington D. C. or somewhere decided to move the plant about fifty yards back and up slightly. So it ended up being a real pain for the crew to wheel 500 lb fish buggies up the hill to the plant all the time. And you couldn't think of conveying anything there with a belt because you would have had to cross the traffic lane to the dock.

The most experienced operator around has to have the final say on design. And that's after you know what kind of products you're going to put up. These new initiatives need to have a niche that can yield more money for the product than the next guy, or why do it. But I hear the air freight problem isn't solved yet anyway. This new project in Petersburg might just add to the problems. But maybe they can get someone to run the plant that is good enough to solve problems with his left hand as well as his right.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

To take a little mystery out of marketing.

I met Denton Sherry in Corvallis, Oregon where a bunch of us from Whitney-Fidalgo Seafoods had gathered for a FDA sponsored certification course in Closed Retort Canning in Metal and Glass Containers. It was a little comical that us youngsters got better grades than the old-timers who had been running canneries their whole lives. We just knew how to study and take tests better from more recent experience. But now the FDA was requiring canneries to have someone in-house with a certificate in training.

Denton was the new President of the Kyokyo Trading Company owned cannery chain in Alaska, with headquarters on Lake Union in Seattle. He spoke Japanese and had in a former position, traveled to Japan and sold the Japanese on buying salmon eggs from Alaska. We all know how valuable that piece of prospecting has been to the Alaskan fisherman and cannery owner. Now much of the run back to the Valdez hatchery is ONLY being harvested for the roe. Same with a lot of chums in Southeastern.

He had a charisma that I imagine the Japanese found refreshing, and he got the respect due someone that spoke their language. But I imagine it didn't take much convincing by the way they started to flock over here to finance egg operations, then whole packs and then canneries and then companies with multiple canneries. Of course, this was just after they couldn't come within 200 miles of our coast to scoop up our salmon. And then they couldn't even catch our salmon ANYWHERE.

The point is, is that he wasn't afraid to hop on a plane and go give it a whirl. Another case in point was the way Alaska started selling bright frozen coho and chum into Europe. The smokers were running out of wild run atlantic salmon from overfishing.

Dean Kayler was the one who hopped on a plane this time and cold storages in Alaska were off and running. Dean was the son of one of the founders of Kayler-Dahl Fish Company in Petersburg. My father ran the plant for Chris and the elder Dean from the late fourties until Whitney bought Chris Dahl out in 1969. Young Dean wanted a place in the company after his father died, but the company was just too small for another executive.

He started a brokerage company and landed the Petersburg Fisheries frozen account. So Dean took off for Europe one fine day, probably a rainy day in Seattle, and started selling frozen coho and chum like hotcakes. Everyone benefitted from that little excursion.

The bottom line is that it hasn't been rocket science traditionally. And a lot of it still isn't. I remember meeting with the Alaska correspondent for a big Japanese newspaper about the differential in prices for a whole sockeye in a Tokyo department store and on a tender in Bristol Bay. He told me a story of a bunch of Hokkaido apple growers who were frustrated with the distribution system too. They ended up setting up a fruit stall at the big train station in Tokyo and selling their apples themselves. So the advice was, "Why don't fishermen go over to Tokyo and set up a fish stall and sell sockeye?" "Two million people a day go through that station."


Creating a Alaska seafood "buzz"

Blogging is really changing a lot of things and will continue to change things. Keep up on these, trust me. Business Week magazine said it will be as big as the Guttenburg Press. Whether my blogging ever benefits me financially is a question mark, but is has benefitted me personally and a growing number of people are showing up on my site meter. On the average, they enjoy one minute and twenty seven seconds worth of my blog.

I also figure this is a way to leave something for my kids. I salt my commentary with stories from my life experience that applies to the current subject. I'm not adverse to detailing the mistakes, mostly of other unamed persons, and the successes that has breathed life into the seafood industry.

The current confusion over various infrastructure initiatives in the Alaska seafood industry could be settled in a heartbeat if they were brought to the table of the blog. I don't know if I want to rain on anyone's parade by dragging bad projects out into the light of day. I might ask if there is a call for such exposure, or I might not . I'm getting off the subject and will have to get to this in another post, being that I was the Alaska State Fisheries Infrastructure Development specialist at one time. Actually, the only one this state and who knows how many other states, ever had.

"Now, smart retailers and brands are using them to create buzz — the new terminology for word-of-mouth — and measure how new products, store formats and promotions are being accepted by their customers. When we consumers notice that our voice is being heard, we respond with a stronger tie to the retailer (or brand) and become more involved."(Full article)

I started to get the drift this winter that creating a buzz about something was getting to be a necessary part of business. After all, a top GM executive started blogging and discussing safety and other issues with the average Joe or Jane. The Business Week article, May 2, described a lot of blogging starting up in industry to get word of mouth going around about something. And that after getting bombarded with over 2,000 advertisements a day, people are starting to avoid ads like the plague. And that people are seeking out information on their own, and not just standing like a forest and letting the wind of ads whip them back and forth like in a hurricane.

Here's a quote from an article in Entrepreneur magazine, "More Talk, Less Ads: I find editorial is more important than advertising because we want to educate so people understand what we're all about, and you can't do that with an ad."

You know how stressful it is to watch a commercial on TV. Blogging has a way to start a good conversation about a brand or initiative in a civilized, and a lot of times, actually an exciting way. You can comment back immediately to the blogger or start your own blog, like people do every 2.2 seconds. But if you have a product or service, you need to be checking the blogosphere for what people are saying about you. People that are starting seafood projects in Alaska need to be checking because the conversation is coming to the internet.

Folks that are starting up brands in Alaska need to be thinking about who to get to talk up their stuff. The Regional Seafood Development Associations will need to do this. Regional differences are cast in stone now, but how are you going to differentiate your humpies from the humpies in the next region over. By creating a buzz.

There isn't anything to say that the Regions can't get together on some issues. They apparently already making contact with each other. This was my concept when I penned the Small Processors Association white paper while at the State in the early 90's. It thrills me to no end that these things are happening now, after nudging them for fifteen years, a lot of years all by myself.

Well thats about a minute and a half worth of reading. The average may change, so I'll change with it. Adaption to changing environmental conditions is not new for humans. The successful ones know it is a must. The environment of communications is changing fast. We've come a long way since the medieval shouting in town square, or do I still hear shouting.

Monday, July 18, 2005

A catalyst for industry change

Unsung heroes are still very much a part of how we make changes in the way we work and live. In fact it might be the chief catalyst that spurs government officials and industry executives into action. It's the small guy, the ones that often have nothing to lose, the ones that hope burns bright in and aren't afraid to sweat to try to make something good happen. Take for example Johnny Rice, who put up the site six years ago to help the Alaska commercial fishing industry.

He represents the best of what we look for in the public servant/innovator. He makes his living as a Fleet Logistics Contractor, ensuring high quality communications and the other high tech needs of a fleet of eight salmon seine vessels. Electronics is a necessary evil for a lot of captains, who pretty much use up their mental energies keeping all the other state of the art electrical and mechanical equipment functioning properly. In fact salmon skippers are always mentally scanning every square inch of up to a million dollar fish harvester rig.

His fleet was heading for the West Coast the other daywhen I was trying to call him. The West Coast is a term that is used locally to refer to the salmon fishing grounds to seaward of Prince of Wales Island, and largely means Noyes Island. This is contrasted with the West Coast that I get 50 percent of my blog readers from. Alaska isn't included in the general "West Coast." I only get 20 percent of my readers from Alaska, but's it's the middle of the fishing season too. (Modern technology is also saying that I have Chinese, Portugese, and Spanish readers, to complement the 96 percent English readers around the world. Absolutely amazing!)

Johnny is passionate about working for the general good of the fishing industry like I am, but today I declare that Johnny is the issue of the day. Actually he never stops working behind the scenes for skippers, deckhands, shore workers, plant owners, suppliers, community infrastructure, and the rest of the people that make up Alaska's largest industry by numbers of people.

He had to lead me through some intacacies of on-line publishing. He would have gone on for who knows how long. The problem was, I didn't have a headset to free up my hands to execute the commands on the computer for very much tutoring. You gotta be prepared to learn when you talk to Johnny Rice. (More on this later.)

I'm really flattered that after six years of putting together a commercial fishing and communications technology news feed, he wanted me to write fishing news commentary for him. Actually he feels the same as I do: that it's not about us, but about the industry and about improving communications within the industry and with the world to help jump start returns on investment.

And that it is a given that in a free enterprise system the industry is responsible for doing the right thing to stay competitive. And that anything less will lessen the competitiveness of the industry and shrink the livelihoods of everyone involved, and maybe even jeapordize the existence of coastal communities in Alaska. People know right from wrong instinctively, they just need good information to take it from there.

For example, Bristol Bay might be having a good year, but that shouldn't make us complacent. The prices still aren't that hot. It is a better opportunity for those fishermen to all get together under one Trade Name. And I emphasize the word ONE. There is no model that I know of that would support more in an area like the Bay. In the global scheme of things even Bristol Bay isn't that big. The fishermen-leaders in the Bay will be the ones that study the opportunities that the likes of Johnny Rice have put before them, such as microwaved salmon. (As opposed to micowaveable salmon.)

I suppose the Chinese are going to see this now and want to come over here in floaters and microwave all the salmon we throw overboard. Or maybe we should do it ourselves. After all you wouldn't need the boilers, retorts, cooling areas, casing machinery, a can loft with tin storage and reforming machinery, and all the equipment, tools and people to support these functions.

I hear the FDA isn't too hot on the idea though. Then they aren't hot on the simple idea of growing a plant that will cure something either. Reminds me of when I questioned the National Food Processors Association back in the 80s about canning in aluminum cans. The Scandinavians had made a seamer that would do 28 different cans, compared to our one. The NFPA rudely refused to even think about authorizing a process for the machine in the U.S. even though many products are put on our shelves in aluminum cans. God only knows what the problem was, and still is, but I suspect is has to do with upsetting the big business applecart.

As fishermen come to realize it, their production associations, in the form of Regional Seafood Development Associations, will replace the large seafood companies as the people to deal with. Then they can say, "What if we used one of these new technologies to process all the millions of pounds of salmon the processors throw overboard every year. "We could make twice as much."

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Good advice, bad advice

I don't hang my shingle out as a consultant anymore, largely because most all clients take exception to the advice given. I got the same thing when I was engineering and fabricating aluminum fishing equipment. Something always gave cause for some kind of strife. I just didn't have the rhino hide for it. I promote cooperation and innovation, and there has been success there and it's also made me a much easier person to live with, just ask the kids.

Things can really go south, though, when you get something started and get this hot spot going in your fish hold. Everything starts to rot then. The classic example was one time I was starting to line up to build aluminum boats. I got an old logging equipment maintenance shed and moved in all my tools and a welder. I had a design that I figgured would cut chop real well up on step. (I bumped into a boat of the same design in a parking lot in Oregon some years later. The owner said he blasts through the Columbia river chop in the Gorge wide open. He also said the company that made his 18 footer makes a 23 footer and it had run around Cape Horn and up to Portland. I've never heard of anyone taking any other kind of speed boat around the Horn.)

Anyway, I got a lot of blank stares and dead silence on the project and I couldn't figure it out. Well for one, I had something new and different and that's always a strike against you. Two, another welder in town said my shop was too far out of town and God knows what else he said behind my back. You just can't say anything about anyone without risking putting your foot in the opening with teeth in it. I didn't advertise that I had MIG welded titanium for Ruger for a time, which is harder to do.

Three, someone who was on the bank board had seen a welded aluminum cruiser outside another welding shop, that the owner had made. The ASSUMPTION was that this boat wasn't selling so nobody would buy a new welded aluminum boat. After this person took me out to look at this boat I was able to say that it never was for sale. But that was months after I had already bailed out. Much later the bank admitted it's mistake, as Sitka was cranking out aluminum boats like hotcakes and selling them all the way to New York and the Mediterranean. Coastal Alaska economies can't afford to make mistakes like that very often.

The point is that you can't always control a good initiative. You can control it a lot better if you know the dangers going in and plan for them at the start. What are those dangers? They are specific to every initiative because a whole different set of interests are involved, and these are, by human nature, self interests.

These lessons might be important as the Regional Seafood Development Associations try to garner support from fishermen so they can gain a tax base.

The other lesson that might be important is who is coming along soliciting advice. There are those people that can play the whole thing like an expert violinist on a fine Strativarius. Give that person free rein and just sit back and enjoy the music he will create. But don't try to manipulate his arm because you can see what that will do. It's the experience and hard work of the musician's past that is the crucial component.

Some will just take the work of others and run with it and sell that. I remember when the 200 mile limit law was new on the books and my father was a leading expert on bottom-fish development. He had set up one of the first two bottom-fish plants in the state, at the PFI plant in Petersburg, with State grants. He was being used as a lecturer by the State, and on one trip, he was taken to dinner for four hours by a consultant. The consultant turned around and sold a report based on that dinner conversation for 28 big ones. What was missing was the nuances that came with the conclusions. I don't think any harm was done, but I know it left a sour tast in my fathers mouth.

His idea of how it should work went like this. He became the first President of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation and helped change their approach from supporting a lot of little projects, to picking an area to focus on by themselves. They chose to focus on proving Americans could make surimi as good as the Japanese, contrary to what the Japanese were claiming, and the rest is history.

A side note here is that breaking up the power base that a group might have is a bad idea. Like in, divide and conquer. We all know people who run around with ideas that you can figure are 180 degrees off the mark. You just have to do the opposite, even if you don't know what to do, and you'll be pretty much right on. I think these divisive ideas come from these people.

So what's the opposite of divisiveness? Cooperation, and of as many as possible. We all know how strong braided line is. Likewise, the more people you can braid together the stronger the organization or anything else it will be. I think Bristol Bay fishermen have the opportunity to become one awfully strong hawser, if they can keep from making a couple of bouy lines. Hawsers are made for getting something done, bouy lines will just hold on to something.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Red flag for reds?

My son is in his first season of commercial fishing, with his uncle on a gillnetter in S.E. Alaska. From a few phone conversations between openings I hear a lot of enthusiasm, but also a little disappointment. The frustration has stemmed from disappointing catches of sockeye. He got on the boat just as king fishing was winding down, around the 20th of June.

This may or may not be a harbinger of things to come in other fisheries in Alaska this summer. It might mean that some folks might want to keep their eyes open for added risk though. This is on top of very disappointing runs in Washington and on the Columbia this spring and early summer.

There were good numbers of kings in the Stikine River run this spring, the first gillnet opening in thirty years or so. It's been great fishing in the Petersburg and Wrangell king salmon derbies. These derbies may not attract a lot of outside anglers, but the locals go out in droves. This is a very good thing for the economies of these little towns. I would venture to guess that there are more boats per capita in Petersburg than anywhere else.

Daniel told me they fished hard and did some running around, but never did get into any numbers of sockeye heading up the Stikine. I got to thinking about the story I saw on the disappearing act the sockeye headed into Lake Washington pulled. There was a major shortfall in that run just recently, to the point that the Indians aren't even going to take their subsistence allowance. Now that is a disaster.

When you have to save every last fish for spawning at the expense of some needy folks, it becomes real personal. Not that I'm going to yell and thrash out in the surf at Linclon City, but you tend to want to know what's going on.

The other red flag in ocean survival of salmon was the collapse of the Columbia River run of king salmon this spring too. They had to keep the sports anglers off the river. Guides had to refund the deposits of clients and the Indians went short too. The only groups that are still doing fine are the sealions at the Bonnevile Dam and at the Ballard Locks.

I could give the numbers of the expected runs and what showed up, but the Indians not getting enough for their tables says it all. I just hope this is most of the bad news.

Except that the sockeye run in Bristol Bay started out real slow too. They were starting to get good numbers on the Fourth of July, which is the date you have to see some fish to indicate any kind of a run at all. But managers are saying that the run won't come in nearly as good as the 25 million fish they expected.

I started to get worried back in '91 when at the State Office Building, affectionately known as the S.O.B. The state had just dumped a lot of money into the breakwaters at St. Paul and St. George, including all the money earmarked for harbors maintenance around the state. I wondered what environmental risks there might be to this investment so I started talking to the scientists in Fairbanks and anywhere I could.

It was disconcerting to hear that there were warm bands of water near the surface in the northern Gulf of Alaska and at a depth in the Bering Sea. Sometimes as much as four degrees. I know that when my kids get a fever of just one degree, I start to hit the panic button. Don't know how that correlates. But the scientists were also saying back then that the pot-hole lakes in Canada were showing marked reductions in stream flow.

Canada's conditions may be different than Alaska's, but about then the chum runs on the Yukon started to have trouble. Chum spawn in the little side streams, and the Yukon comes out of Canada to begin with. I'm sure some of our fisheries managers could give an analysis of any possible correlations. I thought I saw in the State's commentary on U.S. Oceans Policy though, that there wasn't much research being done on this kind of thing. That there are 325,000 miles of salmon stream in Alaska, so what's the use.

It occurs to me that a lot of government types still don't view fishermen as business men and women who have to budget, make plans, count their opportunity costs, etc. It's almost like the fishing industry is just expected to stay as much in the dark as the juvenile salmon who might swin into unhealthy waters out in the ocean.

Is all the industry gets from the government in the way of information is , "oops, we lost our run." And the processors just adjust their ex-vessel prices to make up for lack of volume, as well as market vagaries. I'd put money on one researcher, hired by all the regional seafood development associations in Alaska, coming up with some answers that would be an acceptable explanation. After all, we have satellites that will measure anything on earth, including the health of the tree in your back yard. You can pay for one to take a picture of your car in your driveway if you want.

Someone may have a handle on what is going on, but my experience tells me someone isn't talking. I remember the Corps of Engineers telling me to "don't bring that up" when I mentioned some environmental risk they hadn't mentioned in a harbors report. And I still remember the economist at Key Bank in Anchorage still talking up the real estate market, as people were streaming over the Canadian border after dropping off their keys with their bank in Anchorage.

Sometimes is what you get out in the ocean is one type of forage food for young salmon being replaced by another less nutritious one. One summer in the Bering Sea, there was some alarm because diatoms, who have a shell, had displaced the usual plankton that young sockeye feed on. It would be like us trying to eat our dungeness crab fins, feathers and all.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Shrimp and Free Trade

On the last day of June 2005, the Senate approved the bill authorizing the Central America Free Trade Agreement. Not by much of a majority either. What is this going to do to fishermen? you might ask. It's going to force producers in this country to scramble to keep their markets. The processing plants that have done all the marketing in the past won't care much, at least in Alaska. It's the fishermen alone that will have to get together, if they can, and brainstorm how they are going to survive this latest challenge.

In the Associated Press report on this issue on July 1, President Bush was quoted as saying CAFTA will be good for labor, etc. If you are a producer such as a fisherman or farmer it's not immediately good. Your competitor's products will become more competitive on the U.S. market. What's good is that you'll be back in P.E. class being forced to excercise.

Fishermen and farmers will be forced to find new markets, improve the quality of their products, or cut their production costs. First, production costs are going up in all categories. Fuel alone is going to break the bank of some producers says one ex-Alaska plant superintendent. Second, the products of American agriculture are the best around. At most risk is the sugar beet industry. The Administration has promised these growers that it will fund a feasability study on ethanol production from sugar beets. Improving quality equates to product forms more in line with consumer preferences. Going quickly are the days of your basic black Ford. Man, that's taken a long time for some products.

This may be some consolation. One Democratic Senator from a sugar beet state who voted for CAFTA says they aren't sure what the outcome will be. How reassuring is that for those who finance the sugar beet farmers? Also, do we really know the quality of the competition's products. The shrimp that are farmed in Central America, and it's a large and growing quantity, are sure to have health issues, just like farmed fish anywhere.

The farmed shrimp taste just as bland as farmed salmon, compared to the wild American product. There isn't a thing we need to do to increase the quality of our shrimp. Price point is the idol of the supermarkets. Farmed raised shrimp from Central America might just be the silver bullet for our shrimpers.

If you want to pursue the quality issue to do a comparison between wild shrimp and farm raised shrimp, first you have to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the Food and Drug Administration. They keep truck loads of reports on the fish products coming into this country. the problem is that the reports go to a lab in D.C. and that's the last they are heard from. Anyway, that's the story from someone who personally saw the process.

Was the recent closing of the Petersburg shrimp processing line tied to the impending spike in competition from Central American shrimp? Norquest is saying that the timy delectible salad shrimp from around S.E. Alaska are getting too small. Salmon are smaller some years than others, but the salmon packers don't quit buying salmon. Their production costs are just a little higher.

Klaus Stolpe, a life-long Petersburgite, wrote a great article for the Petersburg Pilot, which was run by some other news organizations as well. To the Pilot's credit, they now have a local that can put some heart into fisheries reporting. Klaus was able to explain how this one production line pulled Petersburg through the Great Depression, gave many a newcomer their first job, gave an income to many housewives, and supported a small fleet of shrimp boats.

It will be hard for anyone else to take up where this plant, (Norquest) left off because of the lack of good dock space in Petersburg. A new dock would be cost prohibitive. The public dock might be used to unload, but the market would have to be a great niche market to warrant the trucking expense. I trucked snow crab to a plant I ran once, but the Japanese were paying good money and we were leasing a truck for a short period, so it worked.

This brings up the point that you don't have to keep using the latest equipment to make money in seafood. There's a lot of used equipment on the market and if fishermen were willing to train in different areas, they could pull off running a plant for some of these species that the big plants don't want to bother with.

When I was brokering smoked salmon in Arizona one winter, I ran into a guy who was putting on $10,000 business lunches at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. A few customers like that and you can put your peeling machines anywhere in town. Well, this kind of thing is what the Regional Fisheries Development Association are for. They will surely have a go-getter marketer that can find these niche makets in a blink. And if he can't, they need to get rid of him and hire a new one. These associations can do that where the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute never could. Or I should say, nobody could ever hold ASMI accountable.

This is the process that President Bush calls "good for 'em." And it is, it's just a little painful doing something you've never done before. But the muscles are well worth it in the end.

Magnuson-Stevens Act Reauthorization

I sure would like to see Rep. Don Young when he comes to Ketchikan and Kodiak for hearings on MSA, otherwise known as the "200 mile limit law." Amendments keep getting added as time goes on, more hearings are held, and most fishermen wake up to the new realities long after the ink is dry. Especially in the current round of hearings. The salmon openings are in full swing now.

But I know a County Commissioner here in Oregon that had a lot of success getting road work done by getting to know Don Young. For some reason I've always liked Don even though I don't know him personally. A little odd, maybe. I just wish he would hold these hearings when the salmon season isn't going full tilt. A lot of fishermen's representatives go fishing too. In fact folks of all stripes that deal with fishing issues go salmon fishing. And even if you can make the hearings between openings, how much time do you have to catch up on the issues and maybe have membership meetings on the issues.

Personally, I think the regional product development and marketing associations should be right in there. They are fledglings, but have the potential to be political and economic powerhouses like Tree Top and Land-O-Lakes. Their potential members just have to see that potential. (Creating a buzz here, Doc.) I hope someone invited them to the hearings.

In a way I'd like to be at the hearings this week, but again I'm sure the whole thing is pretty much for show. I remember one time my father spent the better part of a week in a hotel in Juneau on a hatchery task force. They recommended bowing out of building pink salmon hatcheries because there was enough pink salmon on the market. Well, the State went ahead on 'er anyway and it was Governor Cowper who had the guts to pull the plug on state ownership of them.

I'll just stick to plugging for the association concept like I have been for fifteen years. If you want to go for bear you get a big gun. You don't get a hundred round clip for your .22. If infighting between the gear groups hasn't worked to develop new products and new markets, try the association concept by all means.

So, Don, next time, please invite the Regional Seafood Development Associations. If they go like other producing regions of the U.S., this time next year they just might have thousands of voting fishermen in their ranks. And please don't hold your hearings in the middle of salmon season. You should know that even if you don't catch salmon to sell, you catch them to home can or freeze, or just have a barbecue. You make hay when the sun shines, you don't work on your tractor.

It's just that right now, political power is improperly placed with the big processing company owners. How many of those are there? A hand-full, compared to thousands of vertical integration minded fisherment? The Alaska commercial fishing industry has never really been defined to everyone's satisfaction. The big processors think they should run the industry and government generally goes along with that, even though they give a lot of lip service to fishermen. And fishermen don't want anyone getting into their pockets, but will relinquish ownership of their product for a pittance.

Basically, losing title to the product is the biggest risk of all. The effects aren't felt quite a soon as flying your catch to some broker operating out of a phone booth in Seattle, but it's just as dangerous. You just slowly start warming up like the frog in the kettle. How many fishermen have gone out of business since the early '80s? The whole hand troll fleet for one. Much of the power troll fleet as well. Now a good chunk of the gillnet and seine fleet.

So how come it's being reported that the Alaska fishing industry is doing so well? And why does Washington D.C. think it is a shining example of grandioseness or whatever in relation to this latest round of MSA hearings? Governor Murkowski gets a lot of credit for recent initiatives, using the Board of Fisheries and offering support for the Regional Associations. These are great moves, I just hope there is good follow-through and a plan to make everything tie together.

Someone should stand up in these hearings and ask how to get a copy of the "business plan" for the salmon, longline and herring fisheries. What's the strategic plan that will make the fishing industry strong again. Who's building a bear gun and who's just loading a banana clip for a .22?