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Alaska's Salmon Industry Faces Challenges

Wild salmon fishing used to be a big part of Alaska's way of life. Today it is part of the state's tourism industry, as its commercial fishermen face unprecedented competition from salmon farms in other locations. VOA's Joseph Mok and Zhan Jun produced this report from Juneau, Alaska. Elaine Lu narrates.

The Northwest coast of North America is an ideal environment for salmon, which live offshore but return to the rivers to spawn. During their journeys they are a favorite food of eagles, grizzly bears -- and people.

Alaska's salmon are all wild -- the state does not allow salmon to be raised in farms. But some fish start their lives at the Macaulay Fish Hatchery. The eggs are hatched here, and the baby salmon live for one year in a controlled environment, to acquire a clear memory of the water of their birthplace, before being released into fresh water rivers. Following their instincts, they find their way to the ocean.

It takes up to six years for salmon to become sexually mature. The fish then come back to their birthplace to spawn.

The salmon spawning takes place between June and September. Visitors come from around the world to join locals for fishing. The state government of Alaska regulates both commercial and recreational salmon fishing. All fishermen are required to obtain special licenses.

Mike Miller and his wife Julie have been in the business of taking people on salmon fishing trips for two decades. "This is what we call a flat line,” he demonstrates. “We'll send this right behind the boat. It doesn't have any weight on except for that little 4-ounce [113 grams] weight. And it will be right up on the surface. We're going to set the pole so we are running 60 feet (18 meters) down, up to the surface.”

Mike continued, “Now what we are going to do is hide and see what happens. Actually our target fish is King Salmon and Coho. Those are the two we want to catch. There are Chum and Pinks in the water, which we will catch a few of those too. But, they are not as desirable as the other fish."

Explaining how difficult it is to catch the desired species, he tells us, "Typically what the king salmon and the Coho salmon will do is, they will go through a school of baits. They hit them with their tails. They beat them up, and they come back around and pick up the cripples, the fish that are going around in circles. That's what they feed on."

"So a lot of times when we catch a king salmon and Coho, they will snap them. They will hook them by the tail. When they swatted the lure with their tail they got hooked. Doesn't happen a lot, but it does happens," says Mike.

The Millers' boat is equipped with state-of-the-art technology, but Mike says it all comes down to having a sharp hook, a piece of bait and a hungry fish.

Alaska's wild salmon runs are among the largest in the world. For years, Alaskan fishermen had no problem selling their catch to a world market willing to pay hefty prices. But lately, Alaska salmon has become a tougher sell because of the increase in farm-raised salmon.

Alaskans are fighting back by pointing out that scientists say farm-raised salmon contain ten times more PCB, a cancer-causing chemical, and their fish are all-natural. They say 90 percent of wild salmon produced for the U.S. market comes from Alaska -- and contains no antibiotics or food coloring.

But today, it is no longer enough to just bring in fresh fish and send them to market. Salmon are sent to the dock through suction pipes, and go to processing plants, where they are weighed and sorted.

After they are cleaned, skinned and filleted, they are frozen. Then they are made into all kinds of products from salmon jerky to smoked and canned fish.

A symbol of Alaska's wilderness ends up as processed fish in a container.