Shutdown of fish plant creates ripple effect

Posted: Sunday, December 29, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Jobs weren't the only thing lost this month when Wards Cove Packing Co. decided to close the Excursion Inlet fish processing plant.

The shutdown of Wards Cove left the Haines Borough, home to a fleet of more than 40 commercial salmon boats, with $160,000 less per year from fisheries business tax revenue, said Robert Venables, economic development director for the borough.

The borough also will lose about $32,000 a year in property taxes from the plant, which is about 40 miles west of Juneau. That's out of a borough budget of about $6 million a year, officials said.

The closure left shipping company Alaska Marine Lines without a ''very major account,'' said Vice President of Operations Don Reid. If the Excursion Inlet plant remains closed in the 2003 season, the company will compensate by buying less refrigeration equipment in the upcoming season.

The lack of a plant at Excursion Inlet also could leave fishing supply and fuel businesses in Juneau and Haines with significantly fewer customers this year, affecting many sectors of northern Southeast's economy, observers said.

''Fishing is a part of the economy in terms of diversification,'' said Lance Miller, executive director of the Juneau Economic Development Council. ''All of these things affect the cost of milk in Juneau. As things contract, the consumers are going to have to bear the brunt of those costs.''

Wards Cove announced Dec. 12 it was closing all nine of its Alaska salmon processing plants because it was suffering significant losses.

The Wards Cove Excursion Inlet plant was constructed in 1918, served as a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, and was acquired by Wards Cove in 50 percent increments in 1962 and 1983. It employed 460 people at the peak of its season, which ran from late June to mid-September.

The plant processed fresh, frozen and canned salmon as well as salmon roe, salmon caviar, halibut and sablefish. It had a four-line cannery operation and high-capacity freezing and salmon roe operations. The plant also operated buying stations in Elfin Cove and Haines and a fishermen's support facility in Hoonah.

The Excursion Inlet plant processed mostly pink and chum salmon. Although those fish do not have a high flesh value, the market for roe, or fish eggs, from pinks and chums is strong, said Chris McDowell, a seafood industry analyst with the McDowell Group, a Juneau-based consulting company.

Ron Sparks, a gillnetter in Haines who sold salmon to Wards Cove for the past 12 years, said he's counting on somebody buying the Excursion Inlet facility.

''I'm hoping somebody like NorQuest or Icicle or Trident, Taku Smokeries - at this point I don't really care,'' Sparks said, listing several area salmon processors. ''Name it, put it on the table and we'll be very happy.''

NorQuest Seafoods, a salmon processor in Southeast Alaska with a plant in Ketchikan, two in Petersburg and two floating processors, also is looking for ways to make a profit in the Alaska salmon industry.

''Our industry's got to make a lot of changes if we want to survive,'' said NorQuest president Terry Gardiner. ''The way our industry is working isn't going to work. We're not cost-competitive.''

NorQuest is considering buying some Wards Cove facilities, Gardiner said.

''It's still in the early stages,'' he said. ''Sometime in January the process will start.''

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