Alaska salmon processors overwhelmed by bounty

Cannery crunch leads to limits on purchases, upsetting gillnetters

Posted: Sunday, July 06, 2008

ANCHORAGE - There's such a huge run of sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay that processing companies can't keep up with the bounty.

Many gillnetters are upset that processors are buying only limited catches, or suspending purchases altogether.

Cora Crome, fisheries adviser to Gov. Sarah Palin, said she has taken numerous calls from fishermen. She said they're angry at the buyers and state officials who had expected processors likely could handle this year's run, based on an industry survey.

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

Processors and state officials say a variety of reasons are behind the cannery crunch. But they say they expect the problem will soon sort itself out.

Bristol Bay accounts for more than a quarter of the total value of Alaska's salmon catch in most years. The catch of 29.8 million sockeye last year was worth $116 million at the docks.

State biologists have predicted a haul of 31.4 million fish this season, with the monthlong run traditionally peaking in early July.

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

Bristol Bay gillnetters were fuming that processors limited or suspended their buying days before the peak of the run.

"It's disappointing," said David Harsila. "We're just getting started and we're already on suspensions."

Processors didn't have much choice. The fishing fleet bagged 2.6 million fish on Wednesday. That haul followed three days of catches exceeding 1 million fish.

The huge hauls overwhelmed thousands of workers who clean, freeze and can the salmon in plants in Naknek, Dillingham and other ports around the bay.

Processors and state fishery managers say the great challenge is Bristol Bay's unpredictable runs. Processors say they have to be ready 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."

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