CRITFC Tribes Pursueby Barry Espenson
Four Columbia River treaty tribes, with the aid of a federal grant, will explore the potential for siting a commercial fish processing center along the Columbia River with the goal of enhancing their share in the market place.
Representatives of the Nez Perce, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Yakima tribes joined federal officials this week in announcing the award of a $39,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant. The money, and $9,797 chipped in by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, will be used to study the economic feasibility of such a processing facility and retail center.
CRITFC will issue a request next week for proposals to conduct the analysis. The feasibility study will address issues related to facility location, operations and maintenance funding, ownership, equipment, product development and employment. The study is expected to be completed within a year.
A tribal move into the fish processing business is called for in the five-year strategic plan developed by CRITFC in 2002. Such a center would be the first inter-tribal fish processing center in the United States.
CRITFC's initial estimates are that it would cost about $5 million to build, equip and staff such a processing center. And while the feasibility study will explore potential sites, tribal officials said that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has offered to provide a site near White Salmon, Wash.
"$5 million is a lot of money, but we're going to get there," said Kahseuss Jackson, the CRITFC business specialist that authored the grant application. He said that other grants will be pursued and "hopefully we will have other entities step up."
Tom Dorr, a senior adviser to the Secretary of Agriculture, told reporters that the USDA has a variety of programs that could potentially provide financial help. As an example, the department's Value-Added Development grant program can provide up to $500,000 to kick-start such initiatives.
He said that there are a variety of options for assistance and financing through his department and other agencies.
The tribes feel that such a processing center could yield a variety of benefits for the fishers and their communities. Among those benefits would be:
In such times of plenty, the tribes try to sell as many fish as they can "over the bank" to the public. Those sales normally represent about 25 percent of the tribal catch and bring a decent price -- from $2 to $4 per pound, according to Jon Matthews, CRITFC finance and operations manager. Such prices are generally well below supermarket prices.
Most of the remainder of the catch "goes to wholesalers who pay prices reflecting tribal fishers' status at the bottom of the marketing chain," according to a feasibility study fact sheet. Those prices have ranged in recent times from 50 to 75 cents per pound for favored fish like spring-run chinook and fall chinook brights, and as low as 5 cents per pound for less favored fish such as fall chinook tules.
"We've been at the bottom end of the marketing channel," Matthews said of wholesale buyers' long-held perception that fish provided by the tribes are of lesser quality. The tribes are also, literally, at the end of the fish harvest chain. Fish caught in the ocean, and lower Columbia mainstem, reach the market first and can result in dampened demand and prices. The tribes fish in the mainstem reservoirs and tributaries above Bonneville dam.
"If we had a commercial processing center, the value (of each fish caught) would go up," Jackson said. He said that at $2 per pound the average salmon would fetch $30. That same fish could be worth $200 smoked and marketed properly. Likewise, said CRITFC's executive director, Olney Patt Jr., fish processed on-site and sold as fresh or frozen would have value added.
"Somebody's making money off this. We would like to see some of that come back to the fishers," Patt said.
The tribes are already at work to better position themselves in the market place. CRITFC provides fishers with promotional and technical support such as marketing seminars, commercial-fishery advertising, quality-improvement workshops, food safety certification courses and assistance in fostering market connections.
"That image issue we've worked very hard to overcome," Matthews said. "It's beginning to show in the market and I think it's showing in the buyers' participation."
Matthews said that a small number of tribal fishers are diversifying their product offerings, such as offering smoked and dried salmon, and attempting to broaden product distribution. The hope is that the feasibility study will steer CRITFC and staff from the four tribes toward more product development and distribution opportunities.
A problem with a dependence on fresh fish sales is one of pure numbers.
When the fish runs come in, the fishers are often "dealing with large volumes that they have to get rid of quickly," Matthews said. Flooding of markets can drive down prices so CRITFC would like to see more tribal members working to provide fish products with more shelf life. And again, having a processing center at some central mainstem would allow the fish to be better preserved.
"The minute fishers harvest the fish they are running against the clock" to get them cleaned, iced and preserved to maintain the quality that the buyers, and public, demands, Patt says. The Umatilla Tribes' Jay Minthorn and Yakama Nation's Randy Settler said tribal fishers have struggled for years, sometimes in 100-degree heat, to preserve that quality during the long trip from the river to the buyers and markets.
"On the Columbia River we have no infrastructure" close at hand to provide cool storage, freezing and processing for the fish, Settler said. A processing facility would help not only commercial fishers but ceremonial and subsistence fishers as well, he said.
The fish processing center, and parallel explorations of fish product lines, aim to create year-round sales. There are some 500 tribal fishers. The processing plant is expected to provide 10 full-time jobs.
CRITFC has already been working in conjunction with Ecotrust and Oregon State University's Food Innovation Center on product development.
"Right now we're focusing on tules because of the low price" and because they have been plentiful, Matthews said. Last year 180,600 Bonneville pool hatchery tules returned to the river and 150,000 are expected this year. Among the products being tested are salmon jerky and pate.
Biologists have predicted that this year's fall chinook run will include nearly 525,000 upriver fish, the third largest showing since 1988. If that forecast is realized, tribal fishers expect to harvest as many 160,000 chinook, their share of the overall return.
Meanwhile, tribal gill-netters will continue to market salmon as best they can -- fresh over the bank to the public and to commercial buyers. Their first late summer/fall fishing season on the Columbia River mainstem began this week.
Sales of scaffold- or hook-and-line-caught chinook, coho, steelhead, walleye, shad and carp will continue until further notice. Sales of gillnet-caught fish, comprising the above fisheries, are under way during the following periods:
Additional fishing periods may open depending on returning-fish numbers.
Fish will be sold at a variety of locations, including Marine Park in Cascade Locks; Lone Pine in The Dalles; North Bonneville, a mile east of Bonneville Dam; and Columbia Point in Washington's Tri-Cities area.
For a map of sale sites and schedule within the Columbia River Gorge, go to: www.critfc.org/harvest/index.html
The Portland-based CRITFC is the technical support and coordinating agency for fishery management policies of four Columbia River basin treaty tribes: the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, the Yakama Nation and the Nez Perce Tribe.
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