Fundamental changes in Alaska's commercial fishing business, from the advent of individual fishing quotas to the calamitous decline of salmon prices, have had devastating effects on many coastal communities the last few years, but Homer has fared well.
That may come as a surprise, especially after a fire in 1998 razed the city's only large fish processor, Icicle Seafoods. But in an odd way, the loss of one of the biggest employers has paved the way for positive change on the Homer waterfront, said Port Director Bill Abbott.
"Generally a calamity like that has aspects of misfortune, but it can also effect change for the better," he said.
In just the last year, a small, custom processing plant has opened its doors after spending $1 million on renovation the first major investment on the waterfront in two decades. Next door, a group of East Coast investors has leased a long-vacant city lot and plans to build a $1 million auction house.
Starting in 1997, Homer became and continues to be the No. 1 port for halibut landings, in part because of a new business called The Auction Block. Even though those fish are no longer
processed here, the increased boat traffic is felt from grocery stores to the golf course. The harbor is hopping, boosting city revenues by 30 percent over the last two years, and plans are afoot to expand the city facility even further.
And it all stems from a decision years ago to build a public dock, open to all, with cranes and a city-owned ice house.
"This public dock you have is a wonderful thing," said Pete Knutson, who with partner Mike McCune recently opened The Fish Factory in Homer. "It's unique in Alaska. No other town has this."
Knutson and McCune said they selected Homer to site their small custom processing plant because of its dock and its road access. Almost every other dock in Alaska is owned by a processing plant, which requires a boat to sell its catch to that plant. In Homer, competition thrives, they said. And because of the road system, the fish can be at Ted Stevens International Airport in four or five hours, or be in Seattle in three or four days.
That set of advantages was obvious to longtime Homer fisher Kevin Hogan when he opened a new business in 1997 called the Auction Block. Two years earlier, the halibut and black cod fisheries had switched from derby-style, in which the entire quota might be caught in as little as two 24-hour periods, to private ownership of the fishing rights. The season stretched out to 245 days March 15 to Nov. 15 and skippers could fish whenever they wanted.
Hogan created Alaska's first fish auction. A skipper could radio in that he had 10,000 pounds to sell, and Hogan would auction it off to the highest bidder. That year, Homer began to overtake Kodiak, which had traditionally been the No. 1 port for halibut landings, and the next year Homer took the crown. It has maintained that standing ever since.
Homer isn't so much redefining itself as a key port in Alaska, Hogan said, "it's happening by default."
Along with the Auction Block, Alaska Custom Seafoods is one of the biggest buyers of halibut in Homer, and this year owner Brad Faulkner hopes to build a small facility that will allow him to head the halibut before sending them on to market.
"It's nothing major," he said, just something that will add value to the fish before they head south, either via jet from Anchorage or semi-trailer on the Alaska Highway.
Halibut is not the only fish in the sea, however, which is another reason why Homer was attractive to Fish Factory owners McCune and Knutson. Both have years of experience in the Alaska fishing business -- McCune had been a longtime employee of Dragnet Fisheries in Kenai, while Knutson has worked on Seattle-based halibut schooners more than 40 years -- and they know the value of diversity, they said. Fishers deliver salmon, herring, cod and rockfish in addition to halibut and blackcod.
"There is resource available 11 or 12 months a year," McCune said. "There's a little bit of fish for a long time -- that's the key."
The Fish Factory is something of a one-stop shopping service for boats and fish buyers. The company will handle every conceivable element in the fish business, McCune said, from simply unloading a boat and putting the fish into iced totes, to filleting, freezing and shipping.
Another business that hopes to insinuate itself on the Homer waterfront is Northern Aurora, a Massachusetts firm that last year leased a lot on Fish Dock Road. Its plan is to set up a New England-style fish auction, company president Darrin Dupras said last July.
"There's no reason why Homer should be pigeonholed as just a fresh halibut port," he said. "There are a lot of good reasons why Homer can land multiple species and compete with other ports like Kodiak."
Northern Aurora's 30-year lease stipulates that it will build a $1 million, 20,000-square-foot plant. It gives the city an annual lease payment, plus property tax on the land and building, and includes inflation adjustments every five years. Work was supposed to have started last summer, however, and as of February no plans had been announced yet.
Homer was rocked by the fire in July 1998 that leveled the Icicle Seafoods plant. It had been a fixture on the Homer waterfront for decades -- ironically, it had been expanded in the late 1970s using insurance money from the fire that demolished Icicle's former Ninilchik plant.
For a time, Icicle officials said they were considering the idea of rebuilding, but have since said they are waiting for a more secure future. Brian Bennett, who recently was named manager of the Homer operation, said the plant was originally built for year-round operation, including crab and shrimp in the winter, herring in the spring, and salmon and halibut during the summer.
"We're operating as a buying station mainly because of the resource," he said. "Many of those products are gone."
The Homer operation joins other Icicle buying stations around the Kenai Peninsula that now funnel salmon, halibut and black cod to the company's Seward plant. "Our job is to try and buy as much fish as we can and get it to Seward as quickly and as cold as we can," Bennett said.
The idea that Homer could be a major seafood port without a major processing plant would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Every-thing changed with the advent of IFQs, however, and now another major change on the horizon could revolutionize the fisheries even more.
Until 1995, halibut and black cod were managed "Olympic style" -- a race for the fish. With individual fishing quotas, those two fisheries were the first to be "rationalized," in the parlance of fishery managers.
Now the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is considering a rationalization plan for other species of groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska. What form this new management might take is unclear, but a large portion of the Gulf of Alaska fishing industry favors the idea of fishing cooperatives. In a nutshell, the plan would give fishers their historical share of the catch, much like IFQs did with halibut. But under co-ops, the fish would be linked to that fisher's historic processor.
That would eliminate the race for the fish by allowing boats to fish whenever they wanted -- or when their market was at its peak.
Others would prefer a straight IFQ program for cod, pollock and other species, with no links to a particular processor. Still others favor the status quo, with no changes in management whatsoever.
Some co-op supporters say the traditional processing companies must be guaranteed a share of the fishery in order to save jobs in places like Kodiak, which has traditionally been the groundfish capital of the Gulf of Alaska. They fear that if cod and pollock boats are allowed to deliver anywhere, they will abandon their traditional processors and go where the price is best.
If cod and pollock follow the precedent set by halibut and black cod, more fish could end up going to Homer, which wouldn't surprise Homer Harbormaster Steve Dean.
"Kodiak guys love coming here," he said, referring to halibut fishers. "We have eight cranes and good ice -- they're good customers for us."
In fact, handling the increased boat traffic in recent years has become an issue for the Homer harbor staff, he said. Though the cranes are available to all, they can't be used if a boat remains tied up after it has unloaded its catch.
"Even with eight cranes, sometimes it gets crowded," he said. "We have to make sure one boat is not blocking the ice machine or holding a place at the dock for someone else. It's been a big effort for us to keep the boats moving."
Many halibut boats are in the 45- to 60-foot range. But when big Bering Sea crabbers arrive, two of them can take up most of the dock, Dean said.
The higher traffic has pointed up the need for additional space for big boats in need of repair, but there isn't much more room in the harbor. The new Pioneer Dock, which should be started this summer and completed in 2002, will be mainly for the state ferry Tustumena and the Coast Guard buoy tender Sedge.
The city plans to extend one of the new float systems to make room for a couple more larger boats, but after that the harbor is full.
"We'll be maxed out," said Port Director Abbott.
For that reason, he has proposed construction of a new, no-frills boat basin between the Fishing Lagoon and the north side of the harbor. It would require the construction of two large breakwaters and a substantial dredging effort, but would result in space for large commercial fishing boats to lay up for long periods of repair or renovation.
"It's not our intent to compete with industry," Abbott said. "It's a need we see that's not being fulfilled."
Homer has attracted processors, and competition between processors has attracted boats, he said. Now the city should do what it can to keep those boats here for work, or even just to remain tied up between seasons.
Several large Seattle crab boats elected to stay in Homer from October through January, he said, because the cost of fuel to run them back to Seattle was too high, as was the cost of leaving of them in Dutch Harbor.
"We're kind of in the middle," Abbott said. "Everything they need can be found right here."
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.