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Seeds of fleet's destruction Farm-raised salmon is putting fishermen who harvest the ocean out of business
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Seeds of fleet's destruction
Farm-raised salmon is putting fishermen who harvest the ocean out of business


07/20/03
MICHAEL MILSTEIN

Leaning over the stern of his rolling 74-year-old boat, Al Ritter pulls the taut line hand over hand.

A silver flash appears beneath the surface and then rises from the water, a 15-pound torpedo of writhing muscle.

Ritter quickly gaffs it -- an Oregon chinook salmon -- and hurls it around his shoulders before slamming it onto the battered deck, iridescent scales shimmering.

"That's the way we do it," Ritter shouts. "These are the world's finest salmon, no way around it."

Ritter is among the last of his kind, one of the few who still hunt wild animals to feed the world. Two decades ago, the waters off the Washington and Oregon coasts were plied by more than 5,000 salmon boats. Today, their numbers have dwindled to slightly more than 500.

Declining salmon runs took their toll, but it was the torrent of salmon raised in floating fish pens that sealed the fate of the Northwest's salmon fishermen. The same scale of production that made chicken a fast food produced a glut of salmon that sent prices tumbling. In scarcely a decade, cut-rate farmed fish from Chile, Canada and elsewhere filled the fish cases in U.S. stores and restaurants.

Now, four out of every five pounds of fresh salmon sold in the United States have never swum in the open ocean. Instead, those fish bulk up on food pellets that contain, among other things, coloring to turn their gray flesh an appetizing pink hue.

Farms raise 97 percent of chinook, coho and Atlantic salmon eaten around the world. Foreign corporations have quadrupled imports of salmon into the United States during the past 15 years.

Grocery chains love it. Salmon farmers employ assembly line technology and can assure the chains of getting all the fillets and steaks needed to plan sales months ahead.

"Buyers for supermarkets want volume and consistency," said James Anderson, a salmon farming expert and chairman of environmental and natural resource economics at the University of Rhode Island. "They say, 'Can you get it to me every week?' A guy on a boat can't promise what a farm can."

The change in the world's fish markets can be glimpsed just up the road from Ritter's berth in Newport, home to one of the largest remaining fleets on the Oregon coast. The local Fred Meyer sells Canadian farmed salmon for $4.98 a pound. But on a recent visit, there's no ocean-caught salmon, which can fetch nearly twice as much, offered for sale.

"They killed our market," said Ritter, who sells his catch directly to restaurants and to passers-by on the docks. "Most people who go into a store don't even know what they're eating."

A Fred Meyer spokesman said the chain carries wild salmon whenever it can. But the company sees benefits in ordering salmon well in advance, just as it does with chicken, pork or beef. "Farm-raised is very important to meeting the year-round needs of our customers," spokesman Rob Boley said.

Ritter has a hard time swallowing it.

"You'd think people would know better in a fishing community," he says in disgust.

The federal government invests millions of dollars to support the farming of salmon and other fish within U.S. waters. Officials say the reason for the disappearance of commercial salmon fishing is plain.

"Fishing is sort of the last of the hunting and gathering activities," said David Harvey, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "In almost all other cases, we've gone to industrial agriculture for our food. The seafood industry is kind of at that crossroads now."

Fishing's lure

Ritter grew up in Spokane but headed seaward to surf. Fishing paid his way. He could start before sunup, work himself weary, make a good wage, and still hit the waves before the day gave out.

He bought the 36-foot Mickey at first sight at the docks in Westport, Wash., in 1976. People warned him back then. They told him fishing would never last. But it looked good to him, so he rolled the dice.

Oregon fishing boats that year caught far more salmon than the United States imported altogether.

Ritter recalls fish buyers so glad to see him they'd sometimes send out a six-pack of beer as he unloaded fish for $3 a pound or more. Sometimes the fish skunked him; sometimes, he spent days in port hiding from a storm. But when the times were good trolling for salmon, they were oh so good.

He chased fish from Washington to Northern California, reading the weather, fixing everything on his boat at least once, if not twice.

A cedar tree and a fir tree that once stood along the Yaquina River form the Mickey's winglike outriggers: tall poles leaning out from both sides to tow fishing lines. Knobs still rise where branches once were.

Each outrigger pulls three wires that reach as far as 40 fathoms. From each trails four lures and hooks -- all barbless, so Ritter can free small fish or protected coho.

With the lines out, Ritter listens to a Dire Straits CD and watches springs that hold each wire to the outriggers. Up-and-down pumping tells him a salmon -- probably a big one -- is on the line.

He runs the winches like a maestro, keeping the web of cables moving but never tangled as they draw the "pumper" to the surface.

Now 52, with a house and family in Waldport, Ritter stays closer to home.

He works the Oregon coast two or three days a week, sleeping in the narrow hold down by the grumbling John Deere engine. He needs to hook 60 to 80 large salmon a week to make it.

Usually, he does. But he never can be sure.

"There's days I think I have the best job in the world," he says. "There's days I think I'm out of my mind doing this."

He cleans each fish in less than two minutes flat, hosing it down and packing it in ice beneath the deck. It hardly makes sense to him that fishermen hauling in wild salmon should compete at a bargain-basement price point.

"That's awfully nice product for a buck a pound," he says, looking at four shiny chinook he's about to tuck below. "What do you pay for hot dogs?"

The rise of farming


Ten years ago, the United States netted $679 million selling salmon to the rest of the world. It was one of the nation's most valuable fisheries.

But fishermen were so busy fishing they missed the parallel rush of salmon farming and the salmon appetites of big-box chains such as Costco and Wal-Mart, which wanted large, reliable volumes of cheap fish all year long.

Ritter and his fleet, sometimes tied up during the winter or returning to port with empty holds, could never guarantee such a thing. Only the fish farms could.

Norwegian companies pioneered salmon farming and then took it throughout Europe and on to Canada, Chile and elsewhere, honing techniques along the way. Their marine feedlots showed the same industrial efficiencies as cattle and chicken farms.

Oregon has no salmon farms; nets that hold nearly 1 million fish per site need more shelter than the state's exposed coast affords. About 10 operate in Washington's Puget Sound's protected waters.

On salmon farms, seasons and weather do not matter. Atlantic salmon, bred as docile and fast-growing livestock, follow a production line that begins at the hatchery and moves to pens in ocean inlets. Grown adult fish are then vacuumed into processing plants where the salmon, bred and colored to the farmer's wish, are filleted to order.

Gleaming machines gut, weigh and box the fish with little human labor, keeping costs to a minimum. Quality controls as tough as those on any assembly line prune away salmon with the slightest bruise.

"There's a lot of bad wild salmon," said Howard Johnson, a national seafood marketing consultant in Jacksonville, Ore. "There is no poor-quality farmed salmon."

Eager to make salmon an everyday purchase, farms coined the ultimate consumer-friendly fish: skinless and boneless. In Chile, low-paid workers extract annoying pin bones with needle-nose pliers. In Canada, machines do it.

Farms built themselves around the needs of centralized chain stores: Their computers could route a fish to an Oregon supermarket before it left the water. They raised enough cheap fish to sell to inland Americans who had rarely seen fresh salmon in local stores and could rarely afford it when they did.

"Farmed salmon has the potential to do what the poultry industry did for chicken, make it a staple," said Gunnar Knapp, a professor at the University of Alaska who studies salmon sales.

That prediction is close to reality and signals a revolution in the nation's food supply.

Salmon imports to the United States doubled between 1986 and 1989 and again since then, according to international trade figures.

Worldwide, the volume of farmed salmon multiplied by 20 times between 1985 and 2000 to more than 1 million tons. By 1999, farms turned out more salmon than fishermen caught.

The collapse in prices combined with the health benefits of salmon's Omega-3 fatty acids whetted appetites more. Expanding chain restaurants such as Red Lobster listed salmon on their menus more often than any other seafood.

By 2001, Americans ate twice as much salmon on average as they had 10 years earlier.

"It offered a tremendous value to the consumer," said Jeff Lyons, vice president for fresh foods at wholesale giant Costco. Ten years ago, Costco carried no fresh fish; now it sells more than 30 million pounds of farmed salmon annually.

"People know fish is healthy, so you had pent-up demand. Salmon used to be $7.99, $8.99 a pound. Now it's down to where you can afford to have it two or three times a week," Lyons said.

"In consistency, it's like beef, chicken or hogs. They're all farmed in a way where you know just what you're getting, and you get it any time you want."

Bad timing for fleet

The wave of farmed fish struck the U.S. marketplace as a wave of uncertainty made the Northwest fleet more vulnerable than ever. Poor ocean conditions undermined wild salmon populations. Federal protections for endangered or threatened runs cut the coho catch, which would eventually fall off the charts before climbing in the past few years.

Chinook, not threatened but tightly managed, remained the mainstay of Northwest fishermen.

But against the torrent of cheap farmed salmon, those fish were soon worth less than ever.

Suddenly, Ritter and his fellow fishermen were bystanders.

"It blew the price structure out from under West Coast wild salmon," said Onno Husing, director of the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association, a coalition of coastal governments. "You had a fleet that crashed and burned because their access to the product and the price they were getting for it were going down and down and down."

Farms made up for lower prices by pumping out more fish. That pushed prices lower and left a smaller slice of the market for wild-caught salmon.

Fishermen sought caps on the fleet size so the survivors would endure less competition. Twenty years ago, about 3,000 Oregon boats caught salmon; last year, 467 caught them. In Washington, the drop was sharper: from more than 2,000 to 75 last year.

"It's just the die-hards left," Ritter said. "The last few years it's been a buck a pound, $1.25 a pound. You work twice as hard for the same amount."

Today's shrunken Oregon fleet landed almost the same volume of chinook and coho salmon in 2001 as in 1985. But it earned less than half as much for them in real dollars.

The profit the United States once earned from salmon, meanwhile, dissolved. Imports jumped and domestic earnings sank so sharply that last year the United States paid other countries $427 million more for salmon than it earned.

Alaska's salmon fishery dwarfs the Northwest's. But the governor there declared coastal towns economic disaster areas as prices fell and jobs vanished. State forecasts predict "massive 'market-driven' layoffs of the salmon fleets and processing work force." As it stands, the future of the salmon industry "appears bleak."

The U.S. government plans to buy $15 million worth of wild Alaska salmon and give it to charity, pulling it from the market so prices do not fall further.

But the government, it turns out, spends millions more aiding the salmon farming industry. It aims to expand aquaculture in the United States fivefold by 2025 to create jobs and income.

As that happens, improved methods and automation will further lower the cost of farmed fish, experts say. Chain stores that enjoy 50 percent or larger profit margins on salmon will use buying power to keep prices down, Johnson said.

More and more markets will close seafood counters altogether in favor of prepackaged fillets that farms turn out every day, he predicted.

The fish farmers say they are just bringing modern methods to an industry that has stood still for decades.

Farms did nothing more than hand shoppers fresh seafood for a more affordable cost, said Kevin Bright, manager of Cypress Island Inc., the subsidiary of a Norwegian seafood giant that runs salmon farms in Puget Sound. Angry fishermen, in particular, have unfairly made salmon farmers the scapegoat for their difficult times, Bright said, adding:

"Consumer preferences change because technology offers something new, like when people went from vinyl records to CDs."

Fishermen's hope

Oddly enough, the best hope for Ritter and other fishermen may be to ride the wave of farmed fish that swamped them. That wave made salmon the third most popular seafood in the United States, after shrimp and canned tuna. If they can entice people lured by inexpensive farmed salmon to try its wild counterpart, they may win converts willing to pay premium prices.

"We could never have afforded to create a nation of salmon eaters, but now we have one," said Ray Riutta, director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, who grew up crewing salmon boats in Astoria. "We're never going to take back the market from farmed, but we can get a piece of it."

Alaska and Oregon fishermen are testing freezing methods to hold wild salmon for sale in the off-season. They're readying ads hyping the natural flavor of wild salmon.

Ritter warns everyone passing his boat that it is artificial coloring that gives farmed salmon the rosy hue wild fish absorb from their marine diet. He makes sure they grasp the risk of farms spreading disease, dirtying the depths and opening the door for exotic Atlantic salmon to escape pens and compete with native species.

"The ones who don't, I educate them," he says. "That's part of my job."

It's a big one. A survey in 2001 found that four out of five Americans see no difference between farmed and wild fish.

Steering the Mickey toward port, Ritter calls his wife on the cell phone and asks her to check with the local restaurants that buy his catch. He stops talking when an orca spouts 100 yards off the bow.

It's nearly 10 p.m. when the boat bumps the dock in Newport, about 40 chinook on ice in the hold.

He'll be back the next morning, setting up signs for "Mickey's Wild Chinook" and selling his catch off the boat for $3 a pound. Others haul fish to the farmer's market in Portland, where they get about three times as much for fillets.

Whatever's left over, he'll take to the processor and hope for more than $1 a pound.

"All my running partners, the guys at the gear store, we have a pretty good fishing family out here," he said. "We're dependent on each other. We're hanging on."


Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com




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