Wards Cove plans to shutter fish processing plants

Posted: Friday, December 13, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- One of Alaska's oldest and largest fish processing companies, Wards Cove Packing Co., announced Thursday it is halting its salmon operations after 75 years.

The Seattle-based company's decision sparked fears that some fishermen would be without markets for their catch and hundreds of seasonal jobs would be lost here.

Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski on Thursday pledged to aggressively seek new buyers and aid communities affected by the loss.

Wards Cove officials said after several years of ''accelerating losses'' brought on by a glut in the salmon market they were unable to secure bank financing for the 2003 season.

As many as nine processing plants will be closed, state officials said.

Wards Cove has been processing Alaska salmon since 1928 when the Brindle family started a single canning line in Ketchikan. The company is one of six major processors in Alaska.

''This is a very sad day for the Brindle family, our employees, our fishermen, and our friends throughout Alaska and Washington, and it is a day which I wish would never have had to happen,'' said company chairman Alec W. Brindle.

Wards Cove has about 150 full-time employees in Alaska and Washington state and provides about 1,500 seasonal jobs. About 20 full-time jobs and 750 seasonal jobs are expected to be lost in Alaska due to the cutback.

The company will continue to maintain its small Bering Sea crab fleet as well as its Dutch Harbor pollock operation, Brindle said. But since about 85 percent of its business was salmon, this is a significant cutback, he said.

''Whether you look at canned or frozen, the world is awash with salmon,'' Brindle said, adding the company has lost ''millions'' since 1997.

Earlier this year, Wards Cove told some fishermen that it would not be buying their fish. A flood of farm-raised salmon from Canada, Chile and elsewhere have continued to cause consternation for the Alaska's surviving salmon fishermen.

Juneau fisherman Scott McAllister estimates Wards Cove decision leaves up to 70 Southeast Alaska boats without a buyer next year and hurt other fishermen who last year hauled in more than 430 million pounds of salmon.

''This strands a very significant portion of the salmon harvest effort in the state. This is huge,'' McAllister said.

McAllister is vice president of marketing for United Fishermen of Alaska. He sold fish to Wards Cove for 12 years. The decision by Wards Cove can only be more bad news for other fishermen, McAllister said.

''It's basically a buyers market and in a buyers market there is no competition to buy fish. And obviously it just got worse,'' said McAllister.

Wards Cove has salmon processing plants in Ketchikan, Excursion Inlet, Kodiak Island, Cook Inlet, Chignik and Bristol Bay. The company processed salmon this year in Ketchikan, Excursion Inlet, Alitak on Kodiak Island and Naknek and Ekuk in Bristol Bay.

Efforts are under way to sell or lease processing plants around the state to minimize the disruption to employees, fishermen and local communities, Brindle said.

''I've spoken to the governor, he's aware of the situation. I am sure his administration will do the best it can to help everybody in this transition,'' Brindle said.

Murkowski was traveling Thursday but issued a statement pledging to seek both short-term and long-range solutions to the problem.

Murkowski said the state Department of Community and Economic Development and other state, federal and local agencies will work with communities affected by the closures. State officials also will seek new buyers and markets for the fish as well as companies willing to take over the Wards Cove facilities, Murkowski said.

The state also will take a second look at allowing foreign processors into Alaska waters. Murkowski said Alaska fishermen would need assurances that they would be paid for their fish and processors would have to agree not to sell on the U.S. market.

Earlier this year, former Gov. Tony Knowles refused a request to allow Russian fish processing boats in after opposition by U.S. processors who said they had enough capacity to take all the state's catch.

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