A decade ago, Fred West at the Tustumena Smokehouse in Soldotna, made his money processing sport and commercially caught fish from Cook Inlet.
Now, the smokehouse is primarily known for its salmon-based sausages, bacon and pepperonis, products West said allow him to be open all year, and make enough money to support the business.
“We rely on the commercial fishermen for our year-round supply of fish and then the nice bump in the arm is the custom processing in the summer,” West said. “We process, we’re almost about a 7 days a week, 18-20 hours a day, for custom processing, two shifts. We’re quite busy ... it’s just not enough to keep going the whole year.”
West’s smokehouse is a secondary or value-added processer, or one that relies on other processors and fishermen to provide fish that have been filleted.
“About in the late 90s the trend started changing, a decline in fish, things were changing and we had to look at something that was able to keep us going all year long, so we started experimenting with a product that not everybody had.”
Peninsula Processing, in Soldotna, also offers products in addition to the custom processing they do during the summers.
“Our differentiation is that we sell a wide variety of products,” said Tim Berg Jr., plant manager. “Salmon mostly, but we have halibut, black cod. As a reseller we have the largest ... variety of fish on the Peninsula, period. No one even comes close to what we have. White king, sushi grade tuna, scallops, razor clams, we have eight different types of shrimp.”
Throughout the year, Peninsula Processing buys fish to sell locally and online.
“We smoke product and we sell fresh and smoked product to people throughout the Lower 48,” Berg said. “We buy directly from the fishermen and we process the fish ourselves, the majority of it. We stay pretty consistent but January through April are probably the slowest months.”
Berg Jr.’s father, Tim Berg, said his processing plant was able to avoid some of the pressure on other local processors who contract with local fishermen and are obligated to buy as many fish as the fisherman can bring in at a time.
During the 2012 season some processors were strained when the drift gillnet fleet was opened for several days at a time to harvest sockeye that were not caught by the commercial set gillnet fleet, which was closed for most of their season.
“The volume that the setnetters did not catch were more or less made up for by the increased volumes of drift fish that were available,” said Paul Dale, owner of Snug Harbor Seafoods in Kenai. “That was certainly the case for our company, we didn’t suffer in terms of volume even though we deal with an awful lot of setnet families. The harder part may have been that harvest regime resulted in perhaps and exacerbated peak harvest.”
Dale said higher peak volumes can cut into profits.
“We had to really push the drift fleet hard in order to keep up,” Dale said. “It may have resulted in a higher peak volume ... when you see a lot of volumes in a short period of time, in many cases you have to farm out production to other processing companies which is always more expensive.”
Dale said his company makes deals with processors in Prince William Sound, Anchorage and other places to take some of the load to keep the fish from degrading.
Several local processers have diversified to handle a region of several fisheries rather than one major fishery.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily related to instability here, it’s just something that’s evolved and it makes business sense,” Dale said. “All of the large companies here that are processing fish are involved in the Prince William Sound as well as the Cook Inlet, so a significant volume of the fish we handle comes from the Prince William sound ... usually through the Whittier tunnel.”
This works well for local processers because of the extended season, he said.
“It gives us fish when the Cook Inlet isn’t producing fish, by that I mean June and August,” dale said. “Of course when you have a low year in the Cook Inlet, then it helps in that regard too. It spreads the investment out for more pounds and a longer season.”
Dale said the changes and expansion of local processors has occurred in the last decade.
“Why it hasn’t always been the case, I don’t know. Prior to that, another version of this was that companies here would process fish from Bristol Bay when those plants purchase more fish than they can process, those fish would often get on airplanes and land in Kenai and we would process them,” Dale said. “There’s less of that now, partly because fuel is more expensive and those processors have increased their capacity.”
While local primary and secondary processors have found ways to diversify their income, West said it was still hard to adjust when instability in the fishery caused sport and commercial fishermen to have their fisheries closed.
“That really hurt us last year. We had had these same customers for years, they’re commercial fishermen … we do smoking for them and then they go ahead and sell it. That really stopped us … it left a big void. Just like throwing a rock in a pond, that ripple goes out and makes everything … all the way to the fellow that’s pumping gas, everybody in a community this size (is affected).”
Dale said the volatility in the Cook Inlet’s commercial fisheries was part of the reason he diversified his company and would continue to branch out in the future.
“We are manufacturing and we’re open and we’re selling all year long, that’s what keeps us alive,” he said. “It was a necessity to adapt.”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at email@example.com.