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Salmon used as lure for educational Sitka tours

By CRAIG GIAMMONA/Daily Sitka Sentinel
July 7, 2011 at 2:07 a.m.


SITKA, Alaska (AP) - For about three hours on a recent Thursday, Nic Mink was under the O'Connell Bridge making a pitch to cruise ship passengers.

An environmental studies professor from Illinois' Knox College, Mink has been undergoing a crash course in marketing as he seeks to drum up business for Sitka Conservation Society's new salmon tours.

The hectic lightering docks, with the crush of tourists arriving to spend a few hours in Sitka, are a long way from a college classroom, but the tours are somewhat of a natural fit for Mink, who studies food systems and did his dissertation on the American restaurant industry.

SCS launched the new tours, which take visitors to Indian River, the Sitka Sound Science Center, ANB Harbor and other downtown locations, in an effort to educate tourists about a species of fish that is vital to the environment, economy and lifestyle of Southeast Alaska.

"I think that one of the reasons we really wanted to do this was a lot of people come to Alaska and don't really understand salmon," said Andrew Thoms, the SCS director.

For Mink, describing how salmon go from "forest to plate" is an attempt to give visitors a better perspective on the town where their cruise ship has docked for the day.

"We use salmon as a vehicle to tell the story not only of the forest, but of Sitka," Mink told the Sentinel during a recent interview.

The hope is that visitors who take the tour will leave town with at least cursory knowledge of everything that goes into producing wild fish, from the rain forest where they are born, to the gear commercial fishermen use to scoop salmon from the waters around Sitka.

Mink said most people who visit town know the Alaska brand is a good thing, but aren't quite sure why.

"It's amazing how little people know, particularly about the problems with farmed salmon," Mink said. "The Alaska brand is "definitely a positive, but why it's positive is a little murky."

Mink didn't have any luck ensnaring tourists on this day. Each day is a crap shoot, and the weather June 30 didn't help recruiting, Mink said.

But in the three weeks since SCS launched the salmon tours, Mink has led about 10 groups on the two-hour walks around downtown.

Mink said about 80 people have taken a salmon tour so far, including 10 from the International Food and Wine Writers Association, who were in town Wednesday and got an inside look at Seafood Producers Cooperative.

About half of Mink's tours have been pre-arranged and half have come from his dockside pitches. Mink said he's learned that words like "unique" and "expert" don't catch the ears of tourists, while "behind-the-scenes," ''extensive," and "custom" have been winners.

"It's like learning a different language," the University of Wisconsin graduate said.

He added: "Those are not words that academics use. It's really interesting to see how the psychology of those words hit."

Mink estimated that about 50 percent of tourists who come off cruise ships in Sitka already have something planned for their day, often having purchased a tour on the boat. Of the other 50 percent, many don't want to walk, particularly if it's raining.

But Mink has found some tourists receptive to the idea of taking an inside tour of Sitka's salmon industry.

The tours are constantly evolving, and will continue to change during the summer, as trollers leave for the fishing grounds, processors get busy and fish start to run up the streams.

A typical tour starts on the bridge over Indian River in Sitka National Historical Park, with a discussion of the evolution of salmon and a lesson on the five types found here. Then it's off to the Sitka Sound Science Center for a look at the hatchery there and a discussion of the difference between farmed-raised and hatchery-born fish.

Mink said that about once a week he has access to either SPC or Absolute Fresh, giving tourists a chance to see salmon processed.

Absolute Fresh primarily filets and packages fish for charter clients.

Mink said he discusses the charter industry on the tours, but tries to minimize points of conflict and emphasizes the overall importance of salmon to the local economy.

Mink said some 60 million salmon, 10 million of which come from hatcheries, are harvested in Southeast each year by the various industries and user groups, with an overall economic impact that pushes toward $1 billion, according to Trout Unlimited.

The salmon tours last close to two hours, and end at one of the covered picnic tables in Crescent Park. From that vista, Mink gives tourists a view of boats coming and going from Crescent Harbor, the hatchery and Totem Park beyond. He said that view ties together what the tour is trying to impart.

"People really start making connection," Mink said, giving a "100 percent guarantee" that some people who have gone on the tours will stop buying farmed salmon.

Mink, who has the help of SCS intern Helen Schnoes, a student of his from Knox, is currently working to develop an expanded tour that will be marketed locally and end with lunch at a local restaurant.

Meanwhile, he continues conducting interviews with Sitkans involved in various aspects of the salmon industry. Mink said he talks to between five and 10 people a week, constantly working to update the story he tells on the tours.

He said the tours will always be a work in progress, with the ultimate goal of giving visitors an idea of what it means to live and work in the Tongass, and how salmon drive several aspects of life here.

"Regardless of the industry, charter, commercial or subsistence, all of these fisheries are generated by our forest, and our hatcheries, to a lesser extent," Mink said.

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Information from: Daily Sitka Sentinel, http://www.sitkasentinel.com/

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