Processors might not be ready for big salmon run

Posted: Thursday, April 01, 2004

ANCHORAGE (AP) Some commercial fishers fear they will be forced to ignore millions of returning salmon because seafood companies may not have the capacity to process the predicted bounty expected in Alaska this summer.

The processor squeeze is expected to crimp salmon fishing districts from Southeast to Cook Inlet to Kodiak to the Yukon, but it figures to be most acute at Bristol Bay, site of the world's largest sockeye salmon harvest.

State fishery managers believe as much as 27 percent of the potential sockeye salmon harvest, 9.4 million fish, might be left in the water for lack of buyers.

One fisher, David Harsila of Seattle, said gillnetters might face limits on how much they can catch, or have no buyer at all for their catch.

But Harsila added that fishers ought not worry too much because state salmon forecasts are notoriously inaccurate, sometimes off by several million fish. State biologists have forecast a Bristol Bay run big enough to support a commercial harvest of 34.7 million sockeye, more than double last year's catch of about 15 million.

''Paper fish is what it amounts to,'' Harsila told the Anchorage Daily News. ''Predictions have been highly variable over the last 10 years.''

The processor shortage is a symptom of Alaska's deep salmon industry depression. Processors have closed canneries and mothballed processing ships for lack of adequate profits. That was before better times in the early 1990s, when supplies of foreign farmed salmon had not yet taken over markets once owned by Alaska's wild fish.

Likewise, hundreds of commercial fishermen at Bristol Bay and elsewhere have stayed home rather than fish for low prices.

This year's huge predicted run at Bristol Bay is expected to entice many gillnetters back into the fishery, but they now face a dearth of buyers for their catches.

''It's not surprising that processing capacity is down,'' said Don Giles, president of Seattle-based Icicle Seafoods Inc., one of the largest salmon packers operating in Alaska. ''There's no money in it.''

Giles said his company plans to take more sockeye aboard the processing ships it sends each year to Bristol Bay, but he declined to discuss details.

Still, processors are gearing up to handle more fish. That means lining up more plant workers, more boxes, more tin cans, more fuel and more fish-hauling vessels called tenders.

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