Processors gearing up for season

Low fish forecast expected to impact hiring this year

Posted: Sunday, May 21, 2006

State labor figures predict a leveling off of employment in the seafood processing industry, in part because the 2006 salmon run in Cook Inlet is expected to be smaller than last year.

Officials with three Kenai Peninsula processors interviewed recently had mixed predictions for their own hiring for the 2006 summer season.

Lisa Hanson, owner of Custom Seafood Processors Inc. on the Kenai Spur Highway in Kenai, said this week that hers is a relatively small-scale business catering mostly to sportfishermen, though they do purchase and process some commercial catch and make it available at their retail store.

“Our peak employment at the height of the season in the summer is around 38,” she said. “It drops to just two or three in the winter.”

Hanson said that this summer the company expects to hire about what it did last year, perhaps a few less.

“But that is due to an internal change,” she said.

“We have just built a new facility. It’s the first season. After we have a track record and get our feet on the ground, we should be able to do more product with less labor because of efficiencies.”

Deep Creek Custom Packing owner Jeff Berger, on the other hand, said his Ninilchik plant would need at least as many workers as it employed last year and probably more. Expecting fish production in Cook Inlet to be slower than normal this year has led the company to diversify.

“We just got done unloading a trawler with 100,000 flathead sole from the Gulf of Alaska,” he said last week. “That has kept me pretty busy the last few days.”

Deep Creek is a year-round operation, employing between 40-60 people most of the year, but climbing as high as 150 in the peak summer months, Hanson said.

Many workers are from the Ninilchik area.

Labor, however, has been tight the last few years, he said, and Deep Creek has had trouble filling its complement of positions during the summer.

While he prefers putting Americans to work and expects much of his regular summer crew to return, he will try something new this year by adding 16 Russian foreign exchange students to his labor pool. They arrive June 8.

Berger takes pride in the size of his payroll, which is about $1.4 million a year. Deep Creek also has retail stores in Kenai, Ninilchik and Anchor Point.

Wayne Kvasnikoff, plant supervisor of Ocean Beauty Seafoods’ Nikiski production facility, said the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s prediction of a smaller Cook Inlet salmon run will have an impact on hiring.

“In my labor force there is a certain amount that I have to have, but the numbers are somewhat controlled by the strength of the run,” he said. “Only the fish know the true answer, but I can say with a high degree of certainty we will hire less this year than last year.”

The operation, which includes the production plant as well as buying stations in places like Kasilof, the Kenai River, Salamatof Beach, Homer and others, can often require upward of 400 workers during the peak of the season, Kvasnikoff said.

“This year, I would say I will need between 350 and 400, leaning more toward the 350 end,” he said.

Like Berger, Kvasnikoff noted that the labor pool for the summer has been tight in recent seasons.

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