A Seattle-based company is asking permission to bring in foreign processing vessels like those the governor rejected from last year's pink salmon fishery, though a survey of this year's pink runs predicts U.S. processors again can handle most of the catch.
Global Seafood of North America wants to buy 70 million pounds of Alaska pinks for processing by Russian vessels and distribution in Russia.
The company, which owns a processing plant in Kodiak, submitted a similar application to the state last year and was turned down after a survey by the Department of Fish and Game indicated domestic processors would be able to handle the 2003 salmon run. This year's processor capacity survey indicates that, for the most part, processors can handle the 2004 run, said Fish and Game research analyst Susan Shirley.
"Last year's capacity was a little higher than this year's. This year's is closer to the forecast level," Shirley said.
NorQuest Seafoods announced late last year that it would not operate its Petersburg cannery this year, withdrawing a market for pink salmon. Shirley said some other processors in the area indicated in the survey they would step up their pink salmon processing.
"There's a balancing act between all the processors when you consider them as a whole," she said.
Fish and Game has predicted a statewide run of 119 million pink salmon, including about 50 million in Southeast.
The capacity survey indicates processors will be able to handle the pink runs in Southeast and Prince William Sound. Projected capacity shortages in other areas range from 7,000 fish in Bristol Bay to 2.4 million fish in Cook Inlet.
John Manly, spokesman to Gov. Frank Murkowski, said Global Seafoods' application proposes to buy fish in Southeast, Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet and the Alaska Peninsula.
The federal Magnuson-Stevens Act prohibits the governor from granting the inland waters permits necessary for foreign processors to do business in the state if he determines domestic processors are able and intend to handle the run.
Manly said it's too soon to tell whether Global Seafoods' application will be approved. He said the Department of Community and Economic Development will review the application and forward a recommendation to the governor's office.
Don Kubley, a Juneau consultant for Global Seafoods, said the company's proposal would help beached fishermen get back in the game, and improve the quality of wild Alaska salmon. The proposal calls for processing vessels to follow the fleets as they move up the coast, allowing the fish to be flash-frozen within a few hours of harvest.
"With this proposal, they'll always be within sight of a buyer," Kubley said. "I have great empathy for the fishermen in Southeast Alaska who are stuck on the beach watching all the fish swim by."
Stephanie Madsen, vice president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, said her members are concerned that the playing field wouldn't be level if foreign processors were allowed in.
"They won't be paying minimum wage because they'll have their Russian workers on board. We hope they'd be required to go through EPA and Department of Environmental Conservation requirements. If they are able to produce products ... cheaper than we are and they impact our markets, it's just a downward spiral," Madsen said.
Masha Herbst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.