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Challenging year for reopened Kake Seafoods

Posted: August 29, 2011 - 8:29pm
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Employees at the Kake Seafoods processing plants load frozen chum salmon for shipment.  Provided by Sealaska
Provided by Sealaska
Employees at the Kake Seafoods processing plants load frozen chum salmon for shipment.

Sealaska Corp. says it will be back next year, despite this summer’s difficulty in getting plant going

A reopened fish plant is bringing some badly needed jobs to Kake, but Sealaska Corp. is already finding running the old plant to be a challenge.

Russell Dick, president and CEO of Sealaska’s Haa Aaní subsidiary, is overseeing the new Kake Seafoods venture. He said he expected challenges in getting the plant — closed for six years — up and running.

“Putting people to work, local people to work in a community that is over 50 percent unemployed, to me that is worth the challenge,” he said.

Avoiding discussing the plant’s finances or specific numbers, Dick said production hasn’t been what was anticipated.

“We certainly didn’t hit the volume we were hoping to hit this season,” he said. “We do have enough volume running through the plant to make it worthwhile.”

It’s been operating with about 25 employees, locally hired, and has been providing a new market for seine-caught pink and chum salmon for local fishermen, he said.

“These are local fishermen, the majority from Kake, some from Petersburg, and that’s something which is very important to us,” Dick said.

Haa Aaní is Tlingit for “our land” and is Sealaska’s name for its corporate subsidiary charged with economic development in Southeast Alaska. Other than Sealaska Timber Corp., most Sealaska operations are conducted elsewhere.

Kake Tribal Corp. has owned the plant for years but has had its own financial difficulties even after emerging from bankruptcy in 2004. An effort at a sale and operation by an outside company also failed in recent years.

The plant got a new lease on life this year. Kake Tribal partnered with the deeper pockets of Sealaska Corp. to begin operating the plant again.

“Sealaska and Haa Aaní have been good enough to step in and work with us, it mans the world to us as a village” to have the fish plant in operation,” said Vicki Wolfe, president and CEO of Kake Tribal.

The joint venture between Sealaska and Kake Tribal is called “Rocky Pass Seafoods” and is now running the plant.

In contrasts to some of the state’s fish plants, the Kake workforce is now entirely local, Dick said.

Training a new workforce is just one of the challenges, along with developing new markets and keeping old equipment running.

Kake Seafoods’ mechanical equipment, from freezers to pumps to the processing line, was already old when the plant last operated six years ago.

“It was tired, we had to get it refurbished and that was a handful,” said Rick Harris, Sealaska’s executive vice president.

Problems ranging from getting the freezers up and certified to the fish pump, with which fish are removed from the holds of boats, resulted in a late opening.

Dick said they had hoped to begin operations at the beginning of June, but instead began accepting fish in late July.

That late start caused ongoing problems, he said.

“At that point the fishermen are committed to other processing facilities,” Dick said.

Kake Seafoods didn’t have a tender this year to buy fish on the grounds and bring them into the plant, but Dick said they might next year.

“We thought we’d be able to get more volume out of the local fleet and the openings in the area, but that hasn’t proved to be the case,” he said.

The local seine boats that did deliver to Kake Seafoods were happy with the service the got, and like supporting the local community, Dick said.

“More fish in a rural community means more economic stability in the community in which they live,” he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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