Four area canneries are open, but the outlook for the seafood processing industry on the Kenai Peninsula is still uncertain.
"Most of the existing canneries are going to be open," said Jack Brown, community and economic development manager for the Kenai Peninsula Borough. But, he added, "It's a precarious time. This year is going to be critical for the canneries and the commercial fishing industry as a whole."
Salamatof Seafoods Inc. opened in January, but owner Bob Scott said it's too early to tell how the season will shape up.
"I haven't got a clue," he said. "I wouldn't even guess."
Scott and Brown said Pacific Star will open for the season as well, but owner Don Foley was unavailable for comment.
Snug Harbor Seafoods opened for the longline halibut and black cod season March 18.
"We're approaching the season with caution," said owner and operator Paul Dale. "We're aware the market for almost all seafood is difficult, and we're going to conduct ourselves accordingly."
He added, however, that Snug Harbor does plan to operate for a full season.
As for other processing companies, Dale said the industry is undergoing many changes this year, not only in Cook Inlet but around the state.
"There are lots of consolidations or decisions of individual operators to close facilities," Dale said.
Though he didn't offer specific examples, Brown said the peninsula already is seeing some changes this year.
Cook Inlet Processing is open but has been bought out by Ocean Beauty, he said, and Inlet Salmon, owned by Vince Goddard, has fallen on hard times.
"They are going to be partnering with folks and open on a limited basis, but the cannery probably won't be open," Brown said.
Goddard did not return phone calls.
"Most packers are having difficult times," said Jeff Berger of Soldotna-based Deep Creek Custom Packing. "There are difficult times ahead of us."
Deep Creek is a little different from other area processing plants, though, Berger said. The facility is open year-round and the company is diversified in several different industries.
Presently, Deep Creek is focused on the halibut and black cod season.
"Halibut is off to a start, though not a real good one. Prices are lower than we'd expected, and volume is lower than we'd hoped," he said.
"A lot remains to be determined, but we're going to buy all the commercial fish we can get our hands on and hopefully market it successfully."
In addition to commercial processing, though, Deep Creek also works with sport fishing and has interests in visitor services.
"Our business is doing very well, better than we have in a long time," Berger said. "The salmon business, on the other hand, is terrible. Terrible, terrible, terrible."
Berger cited farm competition and increasing regulation, as well as low salmon prices, for the downfall of many salmon processors.
Both Berger and Brown said they have high hopes for the new fish branding process, which could improve the market for wild Alaska salmon.
However, Berger said, the branding process is a long-term solution that probably won't help processors this season.
"It may take a couple years to start seeing a return on our investment," Brown said.
In the meantime, he said he hopes the state and federal government will provide some assistance.
The state, he said, could help by offering processors a break on fish taxes.
"That would be a tremendous help," Brown said.
On the federal level, he said, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is working with the borough to assist processors.
"I'm hoping (the government) can help processors go from the way they've been doing things for years and transition into what they have to do now to be competitive in a worldwide market," Brown said.
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