Selling out

Been a rough season. I’ve felt the full-court press of a state government that is anti-business, and now understand fully how hard it is for a small business to operate here.

I sold our troller last year. Demand we could not meet on our own for our fish and high fuel prices both led to that decision. The plan was that we were going to deckhand with others, take care of the fish on board, pay the skipper above dock price for his fish, and get the larger volume of fish we needed.

That worked for awhile, but once the season started, the boat we were on went to Sitka because that’s where the better fishing was. We couldn’t operate out of Sitka, so were stuck. We found another family, Taku River Reds, doing the same type of business we were. I showed them our bleeding techniques and they took to it like, you guessed it, a fish to water. I learned handling techniques from them. More than I, they are real innovators as gillnetters in a notoriously high volume, not so high quality fishery. But, he could only let us buy so many fish as he, too, could not meet his demand.

So, we can up with a simple solution: we’d buy a boat, buy fish right out of the nets from gillnetters, dress those fish to our specs. We’d pay the fishermen more than they got at the dock, and they wouldn’t even have to keep fish on their boats! We’d get the quality we needed, having handled the fish from the just after it’s out of the water until it’s chilled – the most important quality period from boat to consumer. We figured this would work great for everyone, and since the application for a processing license said right on the first page that “processing is not gutting and gilling if done on the vessel 1/2 mile from shore”, we knew we were not operating outside the law.

How freakin’ wrong we were. When the Dept. fo Environmental Conservation got wind of our operation, after Tim Cottingim and Paul Dick of our Dept. of Revenue tried first to put us out of business, they said we could not dress fish on our boat because the regulations say, it has to be the boat that caught the fish. So, you ask, how could it matter where the fish are dressed in terms of any public health issue? The answer is, it cannot. There are statues that allow a commissioner to address these type of regulatory irregularities for just this type of thing, where someone like me falls through the regulatory cracks. I petitioned the Commissioner Hartig to address our situation. He simply said no, and gave no public health safety reason for doing so. He said I’d have to operate as a “floating processor” to do what I wanted to do – which requires separated rooms, secondary sewage, etc. Like a “floating hotel” of sorts. These vessels are generally at least 60 feet or more, and cost a quarter to half a million dollars, at the low end. I’m dressing these fish, literally just about within sight of town, and then bringing them in to a licensed processor the same day. How could a floating processor requirement be an appropriate solution to my tiny operation?

The commissioner just said no, and said I could “comment on regulations to address this situation during the next legislative session. Like the salmon will just wait until next year. Most of the salmon I would have bought were sold instead to one of the major processors, who will likely send them (and our jobs) to China for reprocessing. I should put in a caveat here, too, that the state even allows sport fishing derbies to dress fish on board a tender vessel or even in the open, at a fish dock, and then sell those fish in the public trade.

So, we’ve got our “new” boat for sale. It’s not worth the risk of holding on till next year to see if a bill might pass that would allow us to do what we want. The bill might simply not go anywhere, as DEC is on record as trying to pass regulations several years ago that could cripple some of our fisheries, lower quality of the fish harvest, and for really no public health risk benefit. When was the last time a wild salmon from Alaska had a problem? In my case, most of the fish were to be frozen, and then all of it cooked by the consumer. There’s just little health risk in that kind of food product. And lesser chance, still when the product is directly from me to my customer. I have everything to lose if unsafe product hits the market.

I have the distict inclination that had I been a large processor and some regulatory dilema like this arose, that it would have been taken care of in a week. The state would have come up with an appropriate response, and then worked out proper regulatory issues later, if necessary. When you’re a small business, you don’t have the clout to move in the regulatory process. You can’t influence elected officials with campaign donations that are the size of the big corporations, nor does your business hold the clout at the local level where your local officials might put some pressure on the state officials. It just doesn’t have to be this way. The state requires the fisheries regulatory professionals to have college degrees in microbiology, etc. Why require them to have this education and then not use that education to come up with appropriate solutions in real time, but rather wait until a bunch of legislators, few or none of whom have this education, to pass regulations to do so, when these same, educated professionals HAVE the authority in state statue to already come up with regulations as needed to address unique situations like mine?

I think part of the answer is that the fewer people processing fish, the fewer businesses DEC has to keep an eye on. The only problem with that is that the larger processors are merging by the year, and the larger processors are exponentially increasing the amount of fish that they mimimally process here (maybe just freeze salmon whole in blocks of ice), and then ship the fish to China for reprocessing. Those fish are then shipped back to the US to consumer markets. Why an administration “of the people” so to speak, would deny our business from existing, when we keep every cent right here until our fish leaves for the consumer, is beyond me. I know there are bigger issues right now – it’s all about the gasline, and unsustainable, non-renewable resource. But when you’ve exhausted all your legal avenues, written your legislators, and talked with the fisheries person in the governors office, all to no avail, you have to concede defeat at some point, or go crazy otherwise.

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

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