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Chilled Bristol Bay salmon may be gaining upper hand

Margaret BaumanThe Cordova Times

By going cold, drift gillnetters may be seizing an upper hand over set netters among Bristol Bay commercial fishermen.

A just-released survey of Bristol Bay processors shows that the percentage of chilled salmon delivered by the drift gillnet fleet more than doubled in five years. At the same time, set netters delivered just 5 percent chilled, down from 30 percent four years ago, according to a Northern Economics survey for the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.

“Given the link between chilling and quality, we believe that (as) the set-net share of chilled product shrinks, … long-term marginalization (will) occur,” the report said.

Bob Waldrop, executive director of the association, added, “Chilling is the gateway to higher value product and an expanded suite of product forms. We believe that one of the most important results from (the) survey is …  the finding that Alaskans, and particularly watershed residents, are more likely to chill their raw product prior to delivery.”

Waldrop speculated that may mean Bristol Bay residents have found the money to invest in the process or have been helped by the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp.’s ice barges. “Either result, or even a combination, is an important advancement,” he said.

The survey also found:

• More interest in fillets, up 5 percent in one year to 20 percent of the harvest.

• Less interest in headed and gutted salmon, down from 51 to 45 percent of the harvest.

• Interest in canned salmon held steady at 33 percent.

“In a world which may be starting to encourage Bristol Bay permit holders to focus on quality, set net permit holders risk being left behind or marginalized if they don’t have access to chilling methods,” the report said.

The 2011 survey consisted of a series of questions about Bristol Bay processor operations.

Overall, the Bristol Bay sockeye run wound up 18 percent below the average over the past 20 years, and 21 percent below the Alaska Department of Fish and Game preseason forecast. The average price paid for sockeye salmon was $1 per pound, according to Fish and Game.

The survey also noted that over the last four years, the drift fleet reduced its portion of unchilled product from 76 to 47 percent of the harvest.

Eighty percent of the drift gillnet chilled product was chilled by permit holders using refrigerated sea water. Slush ice accounted for the other 20 percent.

Read the entire report here