Washington Sea Grant Teaches the Practical Skills Needed to Preserve Sustainable Fisheries, Tribal Employment, and Coastal Communities

By Eric Scigliano

The Pacific Northwest’s salmon fishermen faced a crisis. Starting in the early 2000s, cheap Chilean farmed salmon flooded the country, driving down prices for locally sourced, sustainably managed wild fish.

“The West Coast fishermen were no longer able to compete in their traditional high-volume market,” says Fishermen’s News publisher Peter Phillips.

The crisis threatened more than fishermen and their families; fishing is the economic mainstay of many of Washington’s native tribes and other coastal communities.

Enter Washington Sea Grant. Skilled marine field agent Steve Harbell and other WSG staffers have long trained seafood retailers in fish handling and marketing, and taught consumers to be smarter, safer, and more confident seafood shoppers. Now WSG set out to strengthen another link in the seafood supply chain: the embattled fishermen.

Pete Granger, WSG’s seafood industry specialist, was especially well prepared for the challenge. As a teenager growing up on Washington’s Lummi Island, Granger had taken up the ancient technique of reef-net salmon fishing devised by local tribes. After a stint in the 1970s as a WSG field agent, he earned a master’s in business administration, managed a salmon cannery and processing plant in Alaska, led the American High Seas Fisheries Association, and worked as a lobbyist for both wild and farm fisheries.

Harbell and Granger together applied their wealth of contacts and experience to the salmon fleets’ struggle. They helped fishermen from Oregon to Alaska obtain federal trade adjustment assistance, refine their business operations, upgrade their catches’ quality, and market them directly to restaurants and retailers, boosting their margins and building brand cachet.

For the last decade, Granger has helped Phillips stage the Wild Seafood Exchange, an innovative annual conference where fishermen network with each other and with restaurateurs, retailers, and other key customers, and get expert training in marketing and business management.

Meanwhile, WSG colleague Sarah Fisken has been hosting an annual “Lark Lunch” at a prestigious Seattle restaurant, showcasing the distinctive light-fleshed “marbled king salmon” caught by tribal fishers off Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. This promotion, cosponsored by the Northwest Trollers Association and the Makah Tribe, has infused a once less esteemed (though no less tasty) product with romance, bringing marbled king salmon to price parity with the familiar red-fleshed kings.

But Granger discovered that many tribal fishermen weren’t yet ready to undertake sophisticated marketing: “They first needed to learn how to improve their quality — handling, refrigeration, bleeding.” Since 2009, with support from the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, he has taught these essentials to more than 400 fishermen in seven tribes.

“Pete’s training was very important in improving seafood handling,” says Nancy Jordan, managing director of the Lummi Tribe’s ventures. Lummi fishermen now receive at least .10 cents a pound more “because they’re delivering better quality,” she adds. Tribes earned premiums of up to 100 percent above standard dock prices.

With better fish to offer, the tribes have upped their marketing game, deploying everything from polished web and printed promotions to their own seafood shops. The Nisqually have succeeded so well that they also market 10 other tribes’ catches, including walleye pike from Minnesota’s Red Lake Nation, supplying 14 casinos from Washington to Arizona plus the West Coast’s largest caterer.

“We’ll pay top prices because we know we’re going to get top-quality fish — $3 for king salmon in the round, when others were paying $1.50,” says Rick Thomas, the Nisqually Tribe’s seafood marketing coordinator. “Pete was really an integral part of this direct marketing effort, not just for the Nisqually but for all the tribes.”

Aided by Granger, the Lummi and Nisqually have launched their own retail shops, selling not just fresh fish but value-added products such as fishermen’s stew. The goal is to boost tribal employment and skills, as well as sales. As Pete Granger, a fisherman himself, knows well, it’s not just about the fish. It’s about the people.