November 26, 2006
By Anna King
For years, Native American fishermen hauled in their catch with dip nets from the Columbia River, then loaded wriggling salmon into wet gunny sacks and sold them on the bank for whatever buyers were willing to pay.
Simple, but not too lucrative.
But today, the estimated 500 Indians from the Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce and Warm Springs tribes who fish the river are using 21st Century tools to package and market their fish, or are selling at markets in Portland and Seattle.
Dams wiped out the ancient fishing grounds at Celilo Falls nearly 50 years ago, and tribal fishermen now mostly use gill nets set in the river.
And tribal fishermen like Tony Washines say their marketing methods have changed as well. He now spends less time in a fishing boat and more time on the road, selling fish at farmers markets or promoting the business.
Now, Native American fishermen are selling their catch in small, fresh fillets instead of whole fish, or smoked and wrapped in gift boxes with cans of huckleberry jam. They've also launched Web sites to brand and sell their products.
"I've become a large proponent of marketing," said Washines, a Yakama member. "It's a lot easier than a 60-year-old guy getting banged up in a boat."
For the first time in years, native fishermen say that this year they caught fewer fish but made higher profits.
A combination of closed Pacific Ocean fisheries, growing distrust of farmed fish by consumers, better food handling practices and an increase in direct consumer sales helped Indian fishermen realize higher prices for their salmon, said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
Although the run of about 78,000 fish was smaller than last year's, tribal members grossed nearly $4 million for their salmon this year, Hudson said.
An estimate for gross sales from prior years wasn't available because record-keeping procedures have changed and tribal sales are hard to track. But what is clear is the price paid for fish was higher this year.
Some fishermen said they received as much as $4 a pound from processors during a few days in late summer, although prices typically hovered around $2 a pound for salmon.
Last year, Native American fishermen received as little as 10 cents a pound for some runs of fish and averaged about 75 cents a pound for chinook salmon.
The federal government restricted ocean fishing from northern California to central Oregon this year after the Klamath River's population of salmon dipped to extremely low numbers. That closure hurt coastal commercial fishermen, but helped tribal members, Hudson said.
Changing consumer tastes also helped Indian fishermen, Hudson said, particularly because of concerns about farmed fish.
Hudson said farmed salmon hurt wild fish sales in the early 1990s because the farms could produce year-round dependable supplies of uniformly packaged salmon fillets. In 1986, before farmed fish hit the market in force, native fishermen received about 80 cents per pound. In 1996, the average price per pound was 32 cents.
But fish farming operations have come under more scrutiny, with consumers questioning their environmental practices and raising health concerns about farmed salmon.
"There is continued and relentless news about farmed fish," Hudson said. "It seems to be driving more and more people away from farmed fish and back to naturally harvested fish."
Howard Silverman, Portland-based spokesman for Ecotrust — a nonprofit conservation organization that advocates for wild fisheries — said recent phone surveys of Oregon residents suggest consumers prefer wild salmon.
Part of that trend may be the public's growing awareness of how fish farms operate, he said.
A survey of 500 people commissioned by Ecotrust and conducted by a Portland-based research firm in 2002 showed 29 percent preferred wild over farmed salmon, he said. In 2005, about 60 percent of consumers preferred wild salmon, according to the survey.
"This is a very new industry, and it's grown very fast," Silverman said.
Mindful of the public's concern about food safety, Indian fishermen also have improved their food handling and packaging practices.
For nearly 10 years, the fish commission has been working with tribal members to improve their techniques. Ice stations also have been set up along the river so fishermen can keep their fish cold.
The tribal agency also has taught native fishermen how to market more effectively. Many have developed company logos, unique packaging — like holiday gift boxes — and launched Web sites to sell their fish.
More Indian fishermen also are cutting and packaging their fish, providing traditional smoked fish and selling the roe for human consumption instead of just selling entire fish to wholesale buyers, he said.
Hudson said the tribal agency did a national survey of fishing Web sites and found that many non-native companies were using Native American logos, slogans or claims to sell fish.
"It's working for non-Indians, so why not develop our own that's the real deal?" he said.
Tribal members Alice and Clifford Shippentower of Stevenson had their gift boxes and business logo designed by the fish commission. They've developed a good market for their smoked fish by selling to other tribal members who don't have time to fish for themselves.
The Shippentowers travel to Northwest reservations on pay day to sell gift boxes of smoked salmon and huckleberry jam at roadside stands, Clifford Shippentower said.
Most of their customers are loyal and others come to buy fish because of word of mouth, he said.
Clifford said he and his wife catch the fish, collect the berries and prepare both for sale. "Sometimes it's hard because the fish and the berries come at about the same time," he said.
But he's able to sell gift boxes with two 8-ounce cans of salmon and one jar of jam for about $25, he said — more than what he could receive from a fish buyer.
The commission also has worked to recruit more fish buyers so one or two companies cannot monopolize fish purchases on the Columbia River and drive prices down. This year for the first time, there were a half-dozen buyers on the river competing for tribal fish, Hudson said.
The popularity of farmers markets also has helped tribal fishermen market their catch directly to customers, he said. Some Indian fishermen traveled to markets in Portland to sell fish caught near The Dalles.
Jon Matthews, commission financial director, said tribal fishermen can expect to sell their catch to a tribal processor next summer.
A $4.5 million, 8,000-square-foot facility is being built near the river at Bingen. The plant will likely be run by a tribal contractor and process fish so the product can be sold worldwide. The Army Corps of Engineers is paying for the facility as part of the federal government's dam mitigation on the Columbia.
It's uncertain if higher prices will hold next year if the ocean fishery is reopened, and some tribal fishermen are still having trouble earning a living for their families on the river.
But Washines said he's been earning double the amount of money for his fish since focusing on quality and selling in specialty farmers markets in the Portland area. He invested in liability insurance and equipment to keep his fish cool.
"I am guaranteeing to my customers that my fish are no more than a day old," he said. "The fish has really sold itself. They could literally taste the difference between ours and everyone else's."
The market season is almost over, but Washines said he sold his fish for as high as $12 a pound this year. Last year, he sold the same quality of fish for a high of about $8 a pound.
Washines said he also earned $14 a pound for his smoked fish this year, up from a maximum of about $12 a pound last year. And he said since he's earning more per fish, he doesn't have to catch as many.
He also left most of the fishing this year to family members while he did the marketing. And he's looking to expand his business by joining a gourmet direct sales agency to market his fish online.
"Most of our fishermen are beginning to learn that they have a quality product that is in demand," Washines said. "Now the story is finally getting told."