Monday, August 29, 2005

Flavors, Commissioners and Buy Backs

"People are always looking for a new flavor, a new texture, a new mouth sensation." This from researchers from MIT who have discovered a new way to make ice cream - with fizz. But the point is that people aren't satisfied to eat the same old thing decade in and decade out. Or in the case of the one pound can of salmon, century in and century out.

The term is "day in and day out." How has seafood missed the product development train so badly? Now the salmon seiners in Southeast Alaska are talking about buying out hundreds of fishermen, with government money, and their own. What is innovative and problem solving about this? It is for the 180 seiners who have been able to upgrade their boats, but not innovative at all for the rest of the total 435 permit holders.

The organizers of the buy-back idea are getting impatient waiting for anything good to happen. Remember, it doesn't make any difference to the big regional processing companies whether all these boats disappear. In fact it is easier to control fewer fishermen.

The 3% they are talking about as a fisherman tax to buy out the rest is three times what the Regional Seafood Development Associations are going to use to try jumpstart the industry. This seems like another brainstorm in the piecemeal approach to seafood development. And this one will hurt the communities badly, unless all the surplus seiners are turned into charter vessels for the tourist trade.

Will the new products be minimally processed and go to Asia, or majorly value-added in Alaska and boost local economies? Remember, most all of the processes can be automated and would make for good local jobs. The new Commissioner of Community and Economic Development in Alaska may or may not be the guy to help the Regional Seafood Development Associations. The Department oversees $50 million to revitalize the seafood industry in Alaska. The question is, will he be sympathetic with the big processors and help support minimally processed fish exports to Asia?

If Commissioner Noll thinks that exporting fish like exporting coal to Asia is the way to go, that New Yorker is not doing Alaska any favors. Maybe the Seattle based processors, but not Alaskans. NAFTA and CAFTA were designed to force our industries to be more competitive, which will benefit all of us in the long run, over doing nothing.

Shipping mass quantities of frozen salmon to Asia for processing is the anti-thesis of free trade. It is an extension of oligopolistic practices by a few big processors. The Asians can't start with a competing natural resource, so there is no "free trade mechanism" at work here. It's just taking jobs overseas.

This may be a short term solution, but buying salmon cheap from fishermen and sending them out of state like round logs, only benefits Asia and Seattle. Remember when Alaska shipped round logs? No loggers in Alaska put millions in cash in their personal bank accounts. There were quite a number of Japanese who did, and even two or three who became billionaires.

I guess we'll see his stripes soon enough in his day to day managing of the Department. What does this have to do with product development? Remember that government employees just have to show a good faith effort, like when Mr. Noll mentions some pin-bone removal, etc.

The small processors have been screaming for years for help to make and promote their value-added products. Decades of being ignored isn't going to be forgotten by a few gestures. And then to say the "jury is out" on their efforts? Is this being a leader in economic development? If I was a small processor, a vertically integrated minded fisherman, or an organizer of an RSDA I might be inclined to cry.

Is what seafood industry revitalization needs is some positive words, not mealy mouthed words. Come on, Bill, be the super cheerleader you are, finish what your department started, and it will happen the way you want. If things need to be tuned up, then do it. New products will be developed, new markets created and new life pumped into the communities. Maybe there will even be a few seiners left in the villages in Southeast to continue their millenium old tradition of seafaring.


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