Kenai Peninsula fish processing season winds down amid uncertainty

Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2001

KENAI (AP) -- As Kenai Peninsula fish processors wind down for the winter, they are reviewing the year and making plans for next year.

And some people worry about their prospects for reopening next spring.

The 2000 salmon season was disastrous, and 2001 was disappointing.

''It was short in almost every sense,'' Paul Dale, owner and operator of Snug Harbor Seafoods in Kenai, told the Peninsula Clarion. ''Maybe 'unprofitable' is the word -- difficult for all involved.''

The Cook Inlet salmon industry is traditionally a pillar of the regional economy. But over the past several years, it has battled adverse economic forces. The last good years were the mid-1990s, he said.

Several processors have consolidated or shut down their plants. As the processing capacity declines, some in the industry worry that the plants left will be unable to handle future runs.

Dale, who has worked in the industry since 1978, attributed the industry's woes to three global forces: farmed fish, the Japanese economic recession and the decline in the size of Cook Inlet salmon runs.

''I think every fish company locally is scrambling to respond,'' he said.

''Unfortunately, it takes time. It is difficult to change as fast as the environment is changing around you.''

The scenario the past several years has been fewer fish and less income per fish, causing a squeeze on fishermen, processors and all connected with their industry.

In addition, the processors have faced two years of labor shortages, so they have been pressured to increase wages and have trouble handling the fish they do get.

''The capacity of the existing plants is limited by the workforce,'' Dale said.

This past summer, most plants could only fill one shift instead of two, and had to divert or pile up fish during the season's peak week. And those problems happened when the run was only half its historical norm, he said.

''The existing fleet of processors, modest that we are, were barely able to cope with the peak of this year's run.''

''All it would take at this point (to create a crisis) would be a medium-sized run or the loss of another processor.''

Next year's salmon runs are forecast to be similar to this year's, Dale said, and he plans no major changes at this time.

Mike Shupe, president of Cook Inlet Processing, has a similar stance.

In the fishing business, predicting the future is risky, he said. But he, too, anticipates business as usual in 2002.

''We are optimistic,'' Shupe said.

''We don't plan a whole lot of changes.''

Most other plants in the area have shut down for the season and are being managed out of town. Owners were unavailable for comment.

Bob Merchant, president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, said, despite the hard times, the area processors seem to have stabilized for the time being.

''I would think they are holding their own at the bottom most level of where they want to be,'' he said.

He added what he called an adverse political climate to the list of challenges facing the industry.

Merchant and Dale both said the trials and tribulations of the salmon industry have brought fishermen and processors together. They find themselves in the same economic boat and are working together to survive.

They also see reasons for optimism in the long run.

''We can turn our fish into gold here. All we have to do is get the right market niche,'' Merchant said.

Dale said Cook Inlet has advantages over other salmon-producing areas, especially its proximity to roads, the Anchorage airport and the new Alaska Seafood International plant, a large facility for producing value-added fish products that is just ramping up in Anchorage. He cited the proposed inlet salmon branding promotion as an example of a promising approach.

''We're down, but don't count us out,'' Dale said.

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