BBRSDA talks quality, markets and marketing, and Pebble at annual preseason meeting

Jun 13, 2017

Attendance was low at Saturday's meeting of Bristol Bay drifter's association in Dillingham Saturday. Members heard an update on the sockeye market, the new marketing campaign, and how the RSDA is helping fund management again this year.

The board and staff members of the BBRSDA present Saturday in Dillingham.
Credit KDLG

The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association holds an annual meeting for its members just before the fishing season, alternating between Dillingham and Naknek. This year's was held last Saturday in Dillingham, and KDLG's Nick Ciolino was among the 20 or so drifters who attended.

The meeting started with an assessment of funds. The BBRSDA collects one percent from the each drift permit holder's catch each year. According to executive director Becky Martello, the nonprofit organization has $2.2 million in reserve, and $600,000 in unrestricted funds.

“We’re in really good shape financially. We’re in an enviable position for most nonprofits, and we have a guaranteed source of revenue—which is your one percent—which is really nice as a nonprofit; we don’t have to do a ton of fundraising,” said Martello.

BBSDA's board agreed to spend $135,000 this year to again help pay part of the state's costs to manage the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery. Their contribution will be added to money from BBSRI and the processing industry to keep counting towers in place, etc., and will avoid a large cost-recovery fishing effort many view as wasteful. Cost-recovery boats operate on contract to harvest salmon, outside of most regulations, to earn revenues for the state. But the math is pretty poor, said Fritz Johnson.

“They sell these fish to the processors—at least in the past—for as little as fifteen cents a pound. Now those fish are taken away from all of us. We don’t have the ability to catch those fish. This isn’t a good deal for us,” said Johnson, who is the sustainability committee chair on the BBRSDA board.

A theme during the meeting was the quality of fish sold in Bristol Bay. Fishermen have growing incentives to chill fish, and the RSDA is promoting installation of refrigerated seawater systems. The RSDA is encouraging the fleet to use handling practices to ensure most fish are up to the standard to be sold as fillets or frozen head and gutted, rather than canned. While some fishermen are hesitant to make the investment into RSW systems, others believe this will soon be the standard in the Bay.

“We’re seeing canning lines shut down. I know of three companies that aren’t canning fish this year," said board member and quality chair Buck Gibbons of the changing culture in the Bristol Bay drift fleet. "We’re seeing the marketplace demand higher quality and I think the culture of Bristol Bay is quickly evolving to a market driven focus as opposed to a production driven focus."

The BBRSDA has contracted Rising Tide Communications for its marketing campaign—which is going into year two. Marketing specialists with the campaign seek to brand Bristol Bay sockeye, distinguishing its quality from farmed salmon and other fisheries.

“Consumers are interested in background stories of the food that they’re eating, and if they perceive a deeper story and a more important value then they are willing to pay a higher price," said Rising Tide's Kate Consenstein. "We hope that trickles down to more price stability for fishermen."

Consenstein said the seafood companies Icicle, Trident, Peter Pan, AGS and Leader Creek have all agreed to distribute this year’s catch branded as Bristol Bay sockeye, using labels with the new logo designed Rise Tide for the BBRSDA. Consenstein said she is negotiating with several regional retailers to brand Bristol Bay sockeye in their stores—which includes high resolution photos and cooking instructions.  

Just a few years ago, there was a push by some in the BBRSDA's membership to defund the organization. Some felt there was too much time and money being spent to fight Pebble Mine, which was on the ropes, and not enough effort being spent on marketing and increasing the value of the fishery. Those sentiments came to a head after the 2015 season, when the base price was a measly .50/lb. The BBRSDA went through staff and board changes, settling on Mike Friccero as board president and Becky Martello as the executive director.

While the membership seems more content with the association over the past year, on Saturday calls for the the staff and board to get back into the Pebble fight were met with applause. Several members also called on the RSDA to lead a discussion on allowing bigger boats into the Bay, saying the higher quality standards need more room on board to house more, smaller brailer bags, RSW equipment, and more crew to pick and bleed the catch.

Reach Nick Ciolino at fish@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281. Dave Bendinger contributed to this report.