Russian processors back seeking pink salmon

Posted: Sunday, February 16, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- The state is surveying Alaska fish processors to determine if there's room to allow Russian fish processors to buy pink salmon this year.

Global Seafoods North America of Seattle has applied to buy up to 250 million pounds of pink salmon for processing by Russian vessels and distribution in Russia and Europe. The governor has the power to grant a permit, but first the state must determine whether the salmon run can be handled by Alaska processors.

Given a large pink salmon forecast -- more than 92 million, according to the Department of Fish and Game -- and the closure of Wards Cove's salmon processing operations, supporters of Global Seafoods say Alaska processors will not be able to handle the run.

''There's nobody to buy a vast majority of this fish,'' said Don Kubley, a Juneau consultant to Global Seafoods. ''The existing processors don't want it because they don't make money canning pink salmon.''

Global Seafoods President Oleg Nikitenko met with the Murkowski administration last month to lobby for his proposal. He characterized the meetings as positive but said there is concern that his processors will take the fish to Asia to can it cheaply, then bring it back to the United States to compete with domestic processors' products.

Nikitenko said he has no intention of canning the pinks. Instead, he points to a huge, undersupplied market for frozen whole salmon in Russia.

The federal Magnuson-Stevens Conservation Act prohibits the governor from allowing foreign processors into state waters if domestic processors indicate they have the capacity and the intent to process the resource.

Doug Mecum, director of Fish and Game's commercial fisheries division, said the agency expects to complete its processing survey by mid-March.

''We know that some of the processors are going to be increasing their processing capacity as a result of the Wards Cove closure,'' he said.

Murkowski spokesman John Manly said the governor is evaluating Global Seafoods' application.

''I don't think he has any inclinations at all at this point,'' Manly said. ''He's waiting for more information.''

Former Gov. Tony Knowles denied Global Seafoods' application last year.

Terry Gardiner, president of NorQuest, a domestic processor, said he is concerned about the effect of Russian processors on the industry's standards.

''We have to comply with American environmental laws, safety laws, unemployment and workers compensation, all kinds of regulations,'' he said. ''Once we bring in foreign companies we're going to have to throw out the American standard of living to compete.''

Others support the Russian processors as a short-term fix.

The Southeast Alaska Intertribal Fish and Wildlife Commission sent a resolution to the governor supporting Global Seafoods' petition.

Bob Loescher, commission vice chairman, said that if the processing survey finds the salmon run will not be taken care of, the governor should allow Global Seafoods to come in.

''It would be a great opportunity not only for Southeast people but for Kodiak and Cordova to have a new market that would not compete with any of the products coming in from the onshore American processors who are processing the pink salmon,'' he said. ''It probably could create better pricing for the fishermen and would allow them to fish without any restrictions from any processors.''

Dave Bedford, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Seiners Association, said his group supports Russian processors if there's a need and if they pay fishermen a competitive price.

Global Seafoods' proposal isn't the only one on the table.

The State Committee for Fisheries of the Russian Federation sent a letter to Murkowski earlier this month to inquire about a permit. The committee proposes to fish and process pink salmon for canning, but with the provision that it would not be sold on the American market.

The letter also proposes to buy fish from Alaska fishermen and freeze it using leased coastal facilities. The letter mentions possibly using a Wards Cove plant.

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