Southeast towns adjust to barge company shutdown

Posted: Friday, February 16, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Small towns and villages in Southeast Alaska are trying to make do without a barge company that served them for 38 years.

The Alaska Outport Transportation Association, a non-profit barge corporation, went out of business in November. The Seattle-based company, which had a transfer point in Juneau, cited rising fuel costs and declining outbound goods.

The shutdown has affected schools, hardware stores and cold storage plants in much of Southeast.

Pelican Mayor Kathie Wasserman said air carriers and the monthly ferries are alternatives but they're either expensive or untimely.

''We depended on the barge for everything, from groceries to hardware, from city business equipment to small business materials, from boats to building materials,'' Wasserman said.

Alaska Outport shipped items from cars to groceries north from Washington, then returned south with Alaska products. Its schedule included Craig, Klawock, Hydaburg, Kake, Angoon, Tenakee Springs, Juneau, Hoonah, Gustavus, Excursion Inlet, Pelican and Sitka. Additional sailings and ports were added upon request.

Some towns depended solely on Alaska Outport for barge service.

Company president Jim Ferguson blamed the changing Southeast market for the demise of his business, a cooperative association of shippers connected to the small towns.

Ferguson said individual fishing quotas allow for a longer season, resulting in fresh seafood replacing frozen products his company shipped. He also said the decline in the timber industry means less lumber. Competition from national chain stores such as Costco, Kmart and Fred Meyer also hurt.

Alaska Outport could not afford to keep its final sailing date, leaving cities such as Pelican without barge service since late October. That hurt Pelican Seafoods, which handles salmon, halibut and cod.

''It had a huge impact on us in November,'' said Steve Pringle, manager of the cold storage plant that employed 22 people when it shut down a month early due to the lack of barge service. ''We had all kinds of boats willing to deliver halibut and cod that had to go elsewhere because you can't buy something you can't ship.''

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