Monday, March 12, 2007

Heartburn in the Seafood Marketing Board Room

Now we've seen it all. An Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute board member investing in a Chilean salmon farm. We were supposed to believe that what is good for the big Alaska seafood processors, was good for Alaska.

Icicle Seafoods started in Petersburg with fishermen who wanted a piece of the action. That never happened. I wonder if they knew their company was marketing competing products too.

No different than what Exxon tries to make Alaskans believe. We were supposed to believe that as Board members of ASMI, they had the best interests of the wild "Alaska Salmon" brand at heart and hence Alaska fishermen and their communities. And that no consolidation of the processing and marketing sectors was happening. Not.

So what happened here? This is vastly more than heartburn. Should Alaska keep this farmed salmon company on the ASMI Board. Insiders tell of these board members' plans to jump into farming salmon in Alaska the first chance they get, and their dealing with Chilean farmed salmon for some time. And do we need to remind anyone that the recent past President, and current Board member, of the United Fishermen of Alaska has millions of dollars of Icicle Seafoods stock. (see my previous article on shell games in the fishing business)

Isn't it about time Alaska had a mechanism that could deal with this chronic double dealing. Seafood processing companies from Seattle and Japan aren't going to voluntarily look out for Alaskan interests: make the right decisions on product development to create more jobs in Alaska, agree to assist sustainable fishing practices and reduce bycatches, expend the time and energy to develop high value niche markets like small marketers do. And is it really expected they would share the largess with their suppliers, the fishermen?

Regional Seafood Development Associations could fill the bill if every area of the state had one, and they worked together. There needs to be something that works on these issues all year, not just a couple months during the Legislative session. Heck, these legislators have to spend most of their time getting up to speed on the issues, then there's no time to do anything constructive. They have to read up on consolidation of big Japanese seafood companies, the resident requirements for senior fishing permits, taking the eggs out of fish for the Japanese market and throwing the fish away. Hundreds of issues, murky and important, all of them.

The industry goes on all year, not just during the Session. And Board of Fish members aren't paid to work all day long all year on the issues.(If they get any pay at all, and legislators get paid peanuts.) At the moment it's just guessing by majority. And you can imagine the Governor doesn't have the time to study every industry in the state in much detail.

A solution that seems to be in vogue is the continuous writing of reports by known researchers. These guys don't come from industry or work in the industry any more than the ASMI staff does. Nobody in industry is required to even read their reports, much less follow their recommendations. Here's one on farmed vs wild salmon that just came out. But it keeps non-profits and consultants in business, and that's a big industry, so some good comes of it.

You get a research and strategic planning arm of the RSDAs going and then you have something. Then what they come up with, they'll set about doing. They will BE the industry before long, if they follow in the footsteps of all the other producer groups in the rest of the world. And that's what fishermen, their communities and state government are looking for. But state government or other grants would have to fund it to start with; the RSDAs will be struggling for some time to come in Alaska. And I suppose the consultant industry and other bureaucrats and Boards wouldn't want their fun ruined.

But you get the big processors running the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, and the State's involvement in the seafood industry, and you get an Exxon-like relationship. The Legislature and past Governors have turned a blind eye to the whole mess. Why? To not make waves and avoid it being uncomfortable at cocktail parties in Juneau? To stay on the gravy train for the next election?

You might say ASMI is funded by the processors and that it's their program, so go jump in a net pen. Well, it is in a narrow way of looking at it, but the money is just taken out of the fishermen's take-home pay. And the marketing clout is used to maintain hegemony themselves, at the expense of fishermen's efforts to vertically integrate their businesses.

While everyone else does damage control somebody should consider whether it would be easier to just elect and appoint more conscionable folks to start with. Just like State government should foresee the problems they might have by allowing the foxes(lobbyists, large processors, glory seekers, sky pilots, etc.) to guard the North Pacific Council and ASMI hen house. We'll be able to tell a lot about this Administration by who gets appointed to the NPFMC real soon. I keep hearing the leading candidate is a bottom trawl, ocean clear-cutting lobbyist. You know that that would be a betrayal of the throw-the-bums-out type folks that elected the new Governor.