August 27th, 2006

Went sport fishing yesterday in the first time in a couple years – funny thing is, that’s what brought me up here 23 years ago. I went in my buddy Ron’s skiff with his fishing gear. When we got out to the spot, he directed me to a rod and a herring bait set up. I took out my secret coho salmon weapon – the number 5 canadian wonder pumpkin orange spoon – and said I’d go with that. He thought I was nuts, put on herring on his fishing rod, and we started. I got fish number 1. Then Ron caught one, and was thinking – okay, Mark’s first fish was lucky. Now I’ll really show him the power of bait. Then I caught number 2. Then number 3. And number 4. Final score: spoon 4. herring 1. Then I went with Ron to his house and showed him how to pressure bleed fish with his garden hose and my attachment. He was duly impressed – much more so than his wife Jeanne, who only saw the blood and guts. She loves salmon, but doesn’t want to see her sausage being made.

The summer has been exciting and uncertain. I many times don’t know when I’ll get more fish until a fisherman calls me on his way back to town. Then, if I’ve not bought from him before or have bought from him and he’s not pressure bled fish as we’d like, I ask how they’ve handled their fish, etc. Some fishermen have been eager to learn how to pressure bleed- they listen to what I’m telling them, and practice until they get it right.

Others don’t listen. Either they think they know more than I do, don’t care, or are already getting their in-town list together in their heads. A couple fishermen have been in 3 times with fish to sell, and still haven’t caught on. The last trip, they were really into the fish, so, having not perfected the pressure bleeding system when fishing was slower, they now had no patience to do it, and merely production-fished. They brought in their fish wanting to sell to me. When I heard the excuses start, I should have known they hadn’t done what we’d asked. One said he tried one fish and it didn’t work and that I’d need to show him- I’d already explained how to do it the 3 other times I’d bought fish from him, and he certainly could have called me from where he was fishing to have me talk him through it. He never did call back to have me buy his fish, so I might have pissed him off for good. He had over a hundred fish and so a hundred chances to practice to get it right, but couldn’t pass up the big volume day.

The other seller said he’d pressure bled the fish the “old fashioned way”, which I took to mean he cut the back bones of the spine that you see sticking up after you dress a fish, and then insert your hose there. This works okay, and it’s better than not doing anything, and he’d brought in nice fish done this way and with the belly wall veins scraped his first delivery. I assumed he meant this batch would be the same. This would be what’s called “SPC standards”, the standard of the region’s salmon cooperative.

He then started in with excuses of not being able to pressure bleed when the fishing is hot and heavy. He said it takes an extra minute per fish to do it this way. I asked him how much the fish weighed (7 lbs) and then said I was paying him 20 cents above dock price, so that’s $1.40 extra per fish times 60 minutes or about $100 dollars an hour and that sure seemed like a good living. Then he tried to say it was longer than a minute, so I said, let’s say it’s 2 minutes a fish. That’s $50 dollars an hour, and so on. He finally conceded. He just didn’t want to figure out how to make it work.

What surprised me most of all was when I went down to offload his fish. Not only had he not done a very good job of pressure bleeding the tail, as evidenced by the blood collecting in the cracked spine bones, he had not even scraped the belly walls. These were by far the worst fish he or anyone had brought to me this summer. Not only would these 1000 lbs of fish cost me $2000 to buy, I’d need to spend another $4.00 per pound to have them smoked and pouched – the only premium product form I can make out of fish like this. So, I’d have $6,000 into this load and likely not see any return on the investment for a year or two. When quantity wins out over quality, it’s time to find some other boats.

When you get excuses and claims of quality and then a product like this, you know the seller just has not concept of what you are trying to do – they have no problems selling me fish that if we sold them in our fresh or frozen markets, would jepordize our reputation. We guarantee our fish to our customers. If I buy a fish for $2.00 a pound, I don’t have just that cost I’m risking. I have the costs of moving that fish to my processor, processing that fish to vacuum packed fillet, and shipping the fish at $3.00 per pound to my customer. If the customer pays $10.00 per pound, I’m on the hook for all the costs from the boat to him, not just the $2.00/lb we paid for the fish. If you get a fishermen who doesn’t care about that, you know you have to concentrate on only those who do, be willing to pay them a fair price for the fish they bring in, and do everything you can to maintain and nuture that relationship.

We’re now looking at purchasing a skiff as another way of getting quality certainty for our fish. I plan to go and buy fish on the grounds in the round from fishermen as they catch the fish, and then pressure bleed the fish and ice them as we need, assuring we’ll get the fish quality we want. That way, we’ll take the quality control out of the fishermen and put it into ours, which will make both sides happier. We also hope to do work for other fishermen who direct market their catch like we did, and who would want us to take their fish from their boat and get it to town and shipped or to their processor, etc. With our reputation, they know we’ll handle their fish carefully, and keep their good product good until it reaches it’s destination. Some may baulk at paying someone like us to do this service, but as fuel prices keep climbing, it should make more and more sense for us to fill this niche for them.

Mark Stopha and Sara Hannan
Alaska Wild Salmon Company
Wild Salmon and Salmon Pet Treats
4455 N. Douglas Hwy
Juneau, AK 99801
for Juneau Assembly, Oct. 2006
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