Processors scramble to handle catch

Posted: Friday, July 20, 2001

Hot fishing for Cook Inlet sockeye salmon this week is burning up area processors, who are scrambling to handle the catch despite a labor shortage.

After Monday's big catch, rumors started that some plants were "plugged" and might have to turn away boats. Processors sent fish to Kodiak and elsewhere to ease the glut. By Thursday, they were catching up but keeping a wary eye on the fleet.

"We certainly are not plugged with people," said Paul Dale, co-owner at Snug Harbor Seafoods on Kalifornsky Beach Road in Kenai.

"Monday's harvest was very large for us. I think it was for other area processors as well. ... The combined inflow of fish was impressive."

His plant shipped fish to Kodiak and has two shifts working round the clock catching up, he said Thursday afternoon.

Up the road at Pacific Star Seafoods in Kenai, management is trying to stretch one shift to keep up with the work, said office manager Margie Warner.

"They are still working on Monday's fish, and more is coming in tonight," she said Thursday.

Workers at Pacific Star have been putting in 14- to 15-hour days for at least a week. If the catch tapers off, they may get a rest on Sunday or Monday.

"They have really been troopers," she said.

The company sent fish it could not handle to Kodiak and Homer, she said.

Warner also reported that fishers, concerned about the situation, have offered to stay after their deliveries and join the processing lines.

The processors are still hiring. The standard starting wage this year is $7.25 an hour with time-and-a-half for overtime. Most of the work force is teen-agers.

Dale said the upturn in the catch and the labor shortages are not the only factors setting the plants into overdrive.

The loss of processing capacity in the area, after several years of plant closures around Cook Inlet, is another.

Dale also pointed to current commercial fisheries rules. The schedule of openings and closures is concentrating the commercial effort right at the peak of the run, leaving the industry with fewer days with more fish. He called it a statewide problem.

The distribution is an inefficient use of economic resources, because it stresses the capacity for a brief time and then idles it, he said.

"I am sure there are ways to manage the fishery for a more orderly and more manageable harvest," he said.

"It is difficult and expensive to plan to process that amount of fish in that amount of time."

Right now the industry is under financial pressure.

Despite the frantic activity, the price for sockeye salmon off the boats is only 60 cents a pound, leaving fishers and processors short on funds.

Dale said there is no sign of price relief on the horizon.

If his company gets another massive fish delivery, it might be forced to call in tenders to take the fish to canneries.

"As terrible as the frozen salmon market is, the canned salmon market is worse," he said.

Warner said that another big pulse of fish could force her plant to take drastic steps as well.

"If it comes to the point where we are plugged again, and they fish again, we might have to do something," she said.

But she doubted they would ever turn away boats.

"It hasn't happened yet," she said.

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