July 4, 2008

Sockeye Bonanza Overruns Canneries: BRISTOL BAY: Gillnetters Are Told to Catch Fewer Fish.

By Wesley Loy, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska

Jul. 4--Unlike other areas of the state where salmon runs have lagged, millions and millions of sockeye are pouring into Bristol Bay.

Normally that's a glorious thing for commercial fishermen.

But many gillnetters are livid and are flooding the governor's office with angry calls.

They're upset that processing companies are buying only limited catches, or suspending purchases altogether.

The problem is that canneries are plugged with fish landed earlier in the week.

Until plant workers can clear the glut, hundreds of commercial fishermen must trim their catches or pull in their nets entirely -- just as the fishing is getting hot.

"We're really sympathetic to that," said Cora Crome, fisheries adviser to Gov. Sarah Palin. "It's absolutely infuriating to sit on the beach watching fish go by, not being able to sell your catch."

Crome said she's fielded numerous calls from fishermen angry not only with the buyers but also state officials who, based on an industry survey, concluded the processors likely could handle this year's run.

The fishermen say they're especially upset with the catch limits because the same thing happened last year.

But processors and state officials cite a variety of reasons for the cannery crunch, adding they expect the problem will sort itself out soon.

Bristol Bay is the granddaddy of Alaska's commercial salmon fisheries, home to the world's richest run of wild sockeye, or red, salmon. In most years, the bay accounts for more than a quarter of the total value of Alaska's salmon catch.

Last year's Bristol Bay catch of 29.8 million sockeye was worth $116 million at the docks.

State biologists have predicted an even bigger haul of 31.4 million fish this season, with the monthlong run traditionally peaking around the Fourth of July. Through Wednesday the catch stood at 8.9 million fish.

The abundance at Bristol Bay stands in contrast to weak salmon runs seen elsewhere, including the Copper and Yukon rivers.

Bristol Bay gillnetters were furious that processors either limited or suspended their buying this week, days before the peak of the run arrived.

"It's disappointing," said David Harsila, speaking Thursday by cell phone from the bridge of his 32-foot gillnet boat. "We're just getting started and we're already on suspensions."

Processors had little choice. On Wednesday, the fishing fleet bagged a huge catch of 2.6 million fish. That came after three days of catches exceeding 1 million fish.

The big deliveries overwhelmed the thousands of workers who clean, freeze and can the salmon in plants in Naknek, Dillingham and other ports around the bay. Taking in more could risk fish spoiling.

Processors and state fishery managers say Bristol Bay's great challenge is its unpredictable runs. Some years, migrating salmon headed for rivers and lakes to spawn explode by the millions into the bay in a matter of hours, jamming the canneries. Other years, many fewer fish than expected show up.

To survive in the bay, processors say they have to be prepared for a big run but can't overspend on plant workers and supplies.

"We're faced with huge risks every time we come up here," said Al Chaffee, whose Seattle-based company, Yardarm Knot Inc., runs a major cannery in Naknek. "You gear up for what you reasonably expect."

On Thursday, Chaffee's fishermen were on catch limits. Earlier in the week, the company stopped buying entirely for a few hours.

To some degree, Bristol Bay continues to struggle with the low runs and weak demand seen in the late 1990s and early this decade, when competition from foreign salmon farmers hammered Alaska's wild salmon industry. The hard times led to a drastic shrinkage in the number of fish processors in the bay.

Over the winter, state officials surveyed the bay's 13 main processors, who said they could more than handle this season's expected commercial catch and take up to 1.7 million fish a day.

But Wednesday brought the monster catch of 2.6 million fish, swamping processors.

"Nowhere in the capacity survey did the processors lead us to believe they could keep up with that kind of production," Crome said.

For years, some fishermen have clamored for the governor to allow foreign companies to bring in processing ships to handle the bay's excess fish.

But no foreign processors applied for such permission this year, Crome said.

Harsila, however, said the state capacity survey "was biased towards the processors."

Established processors don't want more competitors in the bay, and a state survey that says existing capacity is adequate can keep out new players, he said.


Find Wesley Loy online at adn.com/contact/wloy or call 257-4590.


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