Saturday, January 21, 2006

All roads lead to Rome, read that, an Association

When I refer to an Association of fishermen, I don't mean the Starfish Gazers Association of Southcentral Baranof Island or some such. I'm talking about something that has the ability to resurrect an industry. Like Florida Citrus Mutual, Ocean Spray Cranberries, or Blue Diamond Almonds. And that hasn't happened yet in the seafood industry.

Picture of a self-contained, DEC approved, processing module.

In the process of modernizing an industry, some of the folks that got in in the early days to skim the cream off the top will have to mend their ways. But they have money to keep the status quo pretty much the same. They have a whole bag of tricks too. In Alaska these folks keep getting their man, and now their woman, put in as Chairman of the NPFMC. Change is not fun for these folks, but it's not been fun for the three quarters of the fleet on the California, Oregon and Washington coast to have to tie up and go home. And now it's happening in Alaska.

But one man in Oregon refuses to go down without a fight. What he is doing reminds me of the intrepid souls in Alaska that are doing the same thing, only he doesn't know it I don't think. And that thing is starting an Association of fishermen (harvesters, primary producers, primary suppliers, first title holders to the product, etc.) for the purposes of not letting the cream skimmers send them down into oblivion.

Don't get me wrong, there are some secondary producers who the primary producers will do well in partnering with. Guys like Alan Beardslee in Kodiak. He gets it, because he came from the grocery and dry goods business and knows the value of maintaining good business relationships.

But this troller in Oregon, who is also an ocean engineering graduate, is trying to get a core group of fishermen in each port to help him market great seafood products without the plethora of middlemen. Sound like the Regional Seafood Development Associations in Alaska? Trollers in Alaska may be getting record prices, $7 - $8 a pound for winter kings, but it's a long way from the $30 a pound that a customer has to pay in New York or Florida. Check this confab on direct marketing out.

The concept is not new, nor is it evolving. It matured in the hands of the Florida orange growers (primary producers) well before WWII to expand the market and provide desirable products, which obviously they did. But this is getting to be an old refrain now. The issue is whether fishermen can work together like farmers can. Time will tell I guess. The Japanese say they like our fish but don't like our fishermen.

But the Kodiak salmon seiners proved that fishermen could stand together and protect themselves, when their backs are against the wall anyway. Without standing together, they just go quietly into the night one at a time. I think the message now in getting the Regional Seafood Development Associations up and running is, "If you don't care about running your fishing operation like a business, at least vote for the Association to give us a chance to save ourselves, and in the process, your chances will improve dramatically without you having to lift a finger."

The individual fisherman doesn't have to know HOW it's going to work, just that it's been proven in every other industry that it DOES work. Very experienced business managers will make it work using time tested business models, and the business plan will change as business conditions change. Heck, I've been working on the concept for 15 years and I don't know exactly how it's going to work.

We know that just negotiating fish prices with the processors DOESN'T work. We know doing nothing DOESN't work. We know antagonistic business relationships DON'T work. The organizers of the Regionals will have to promise that membership makes fishermen's children all grow up to be smart and good looking, that there will be a bull moose in every pot, and that the sun will never set on the organization.

By virtue of the organizers working for free, you have a good dose of compassion built in. Money can't buy that; it's priceless and sits on the balance sheet as an Intangible Asset. Any Association that exists by law is off to a good start. But Associations "lift off" when GOOD MEN decide to NOT TO DO NOTHING and prove they are family men first and sporting men second.


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