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Fish Factor

Salmon handling practices, a reality check
By Laine Welch


July 31, 2006

A statewide "reality check" has been occurring every five years since 1991 to monitor salmon handling practices among Alaska harvesters, processors and tender operators. The project, which includes surveys and extensive site visits, reveals some interesting attitudes and trends.

"It's really the only thing out there to help track what's going on with the fleet and the industry," said Randy Rice, Seafood Technical Program director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, which conducts the program. The actual work is done by Anchorage-based Dittman Research and Graystar Pacific Seafood, and this year was funded by the state Commerce Department.

The tracking reveals that from 1991 through 1996, salmon handling practices improved, followed by some backsliding through 2001 by both fishermen and processors, said Graystar's Steve Grabacki.

"There was less willingness to deliver fish in a timely fashion, chill fish, and upgrade boats to improve quality. For processors, it was a matter of how long they handled the fish or let it sit before processing or freezing," he explained. Grabacki said the big drop in salmon prices seemed to spawn an attitude that "quality doesn't pay, so why bother."

But that negative outlook has turned around more recently. "From 2001 to 2006, there has been a recognition that fish prices are not going to magically bounce back, that there is a whole different competitive market, and we need to change our behavior in order to get better prices. There is a willingness to do something different and it's reflected statewide," Grabacki said.

He added that one of the most notable trends over the past 15 years is in the number of fishermen who are selling their own catches. "It was very noticeable from 1996-2001 and there has been a huge increase in direct marketing and self-processing fishermen through 2006. Far more fishermen are taking their fate into their own hands and getting permits to do so," Grabacki said.

A glance at the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game's "Processors & Buyers: Intent to Operate" data for 2006 shows 478 names listed under the Catcher/Seller (CASO) category, and 225 in the Direct Marketer (DMCP) category, from a total of 1,203 entries. For 2005, the listings were 588 under CASO and 190 under DMCP, from 1,400 entries.

The data can change daily and don't reflect fishermen in several other related categories, a spokesman for the state Commercial Fisheries division advised.

There have been similar "spikes and subsidings" in fishermen's self-marketing interest over the past 20 years, according to ADF&G deputy director, Geron Bruce. "We'll have to watch it over a longer time frame to see if it is really a trend or a cycle we've seen before," he added.

"It's certainly working for some fishermen, but it is very difficult and definitely not for everyone," said ASMI's Randy Rice. "The ones who are successful over the long term are those who establish close relationships with their customers."

ASMI uses the findings from the ongoing salmon handling project to tailor its training programs and materials. The full report will be available this fall.

Fish oil fights fat ­ Researchers at the University of South Australia have found that overweight people on a modest exercise plan lose more pounds if they also take daily doses of fish oil supplements that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. According to, the study involved overweight or obese people who did not alter their diet, but took regular doses of fish oil or sunflower oil, which does not have omega-3's. After three months of light exercise ­ a 45 minute walk or run three times a week ­ those consuming fish oil had lost an average of four pounds. Those who took sunflower oil, as well as other groups who took either oil without exercising, lost no weight. The scientists said they were surprised at the results, especially since the test subjects were still eating whatever they wanted. The researchers believe that omega-3's may improve the body's ability to burn fat.

Crab shells help with homeland security ­ Chitin from crab shells is being used as a key ingredient in national defense. Intrafish reports that researchers at the University of Maryland School of Engineering have developed tiny, chitin covered sensors that can detect miniscule quantities of explosives, biochemicals and other dangerous substances in air and water. It could lead to security and safety innovations at airports, hospitals and other public locations. The researchers purchase chitin in a purified, flake form from scientific supply companies.

The system uses multiple, chitin-coated vibrating brackets (similar to tiny diving boards), plus optical sensing technology that can see when there is a change in the vibrations. Different brackets can detect different substances and concentrations. When a dangerous substance enters the device, the chitin on a specific bracket detects it and causes the vibrations to change.

The researchers believe the new microsystem has many applications for homeland security, and they have applied for six patents on the technology. They have also submitted a proposal to the National Institute of Health to develop a sensor system to detect the presence of bird flu.

After cellulose, chitin is nature's most abundant biological compound. Along with crabs and shrimp, it makes up the shells of insects, zooplankton and even the cell walls of mushrooms. Chitin is now being used in bandages to stop severe bleeding, in nasal sprays to treat asthma and other allergies, and in clothing sprays to remove stinky sweat smells from t-shirts and socks.

Fishy input wanted
­ On September 10-14, the Alaska Sea Grant College Program will undergo a national review of its programs, publications and activities conducted from 2001 to present. Sea Grant is a federally funded, marine research, education, outreach and advisory service headquartered at the University of Alaska/Fairbanks, School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. Public comment is invited. Comments can be submitted online or in writing by August 18, 2006. Get more information at <> .

Salmon fishermen have until August 1 to apply for ten seats on County Committees with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Farm Service Agency. Members will help guide how USDA funds and programs are implemented in Alaska. Members are paid for their time at meetings and reimbursed for travel. People can nominate themselves or others for committee seats. Questions? Contact FSA's Lloyd Wilhelm toll free at 866-872-3320 or visit




Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her Fish Factor column appears weekly in over a dozen papers and websites. Her Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations across Alaska.

Contact Laine at msfish[AT]

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