Standing between the “filet room” and the “butcher room” at Alaska Glacier Seafoods in Juneau, Peter Hochstoeger explained that these rooms might look totally different tomorrow.
Hochstoeger, the Plant Facilitator at the fish processing plant, was co-leading a tour for a group of local business figures Tuesday. The group, organized by the Juneau Economic Development Council (JEDC), included Rep. Justin Parish, Mayor Ken Koelsch, Assembly member Loren Jones, JEDC employees and local business owners.
Pointing back and forth between the two rooms, both of which included assembly lines of employees cleaning and cutting salmon, Hochstoeger pointed out that AGS sets it apart by being versatile.
“In a processing plant, the key to success to be multi-dimensional, to be able to do different things,” Hochstoeger said. “Like, you go to some plants and they’re set up one way and that’s it. They’re just bolted to the ground and they can’t shift it. Not us. Like, you come here tomorrow and we could be doing Dungeness crab. It’s always changing. The face of the inside is changing.”
The production has grown quickly for the family-owned business, preparing all five major Pacific salmon varieties, halibut, black cod, sea cucumbers, salmon roe (eggs), crab and more for consumption. They ship out millions of pounds of seafood every year, almost too much for planes and ferries to handle.
When the company started in 1996, President Mike Erickson and his family were selling shrimp cocktail in downtown Juneau. Then the company moved to the 10,000-square foot facility it still occupies, located just next to the Auke Bay Ferry Terminal.
“Things kept on going and every year, you buy a few more fish and sell a few more and pretty soon you need a little more space and yada, yada,” Erickson said. “We’re bursting at the seams here right now.”
Both Erickson and Hochstoeger said this year’s salmon haul has greatly exceeded expectations. Erickson said he wouldn’t be surprised if the actual output this year is 40 percent higher than projections. It’s a pleasant surprise, he said, but it can be a tough adjustment to dealing with so much more product than expected.
“This year has been kind of extraordinary,” Erickson said, “because the fish showed up a lot stronger that what the forecasts were, so you’re never quite ready. Fish don’t pay attention to what you have to say. They come when they want. It’s a highly perishable product and you’ve got to be ready to deal with that stuff pretty quick.”
Getting the fish out of Juneau
The problem with reeling in so many fish (and crab and sea cucumbers, etc.) in Juneau is it’s tough to get the products to where they need to get.
As she co-directed Tuesday’s tour, Business Manager Kristie Erickson said her father-in-law (Mike) often contemplates solutions to making the business more profitable, and one of the biggest keys to AGS being successful is finding ways to quickly get its fish to market.
It’s also key to expanding, which AGS wants to do. With more and more fish coming through there every year, the relatively small facility puts a ceiling on how much AGS can produce. The more serious issue, Mike said, is figuring out a way to get more of the fish out of Juneau.
The airlines can’t accommodate the volume that AGS is putting out, so the company relies more on ferries to move the fish. With funds dwindling for the Alaska Marine Highway System, the company is facing an uncertain future.
“The problem we have is the unknowns,” Mike said. “What’s gonna happen next year? What’s the budget gonna be for the ferries? Without knowing that, how do you plan? I don’t want to add a building here when I don’t know if I can get my product to market.”
A solution, Mike said, would be a road out of Juneau. At the close of Tuesday’s tour, he spoke at length about how beneficial he feels a road could be, both for AGS and its competitor Taku Smokeries, but also for Juneau as a whole. He said the amount of fish that comes into Juneau could double or triple, in addition to the amount of fish going out.
“It would be huge,” Mike said. “We are for a road. It’s hard to determine how much of an impact it would have on the community. So much product would be able to get here and be able to get to market very quickly.”
Last year, Gov. Bill Walker left the Juneau Access project off his proposed budget, signaling an end to the most recent effort to build “The Road,” as it’s commonly called. The proposed road would go to a ferry terminal near the Katzehin River, which would allow for shorter and more numerous ferry trips from there to Haines and Skagway.
With “The Road” still just a distant possibility, however, Mike said the focus at the moment is on hoping the ferries keep running.
“We’re praying the service doesn’t go down any more,” Mike said, “just because it would have a huge impact on what we can do here.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org.