When a June 6 fire sidelined the state ferry Columbia for the summer, many of Southeast's fish processors felt the heat.
Most people can relate to the problems that the Columbia disaster caused travelers. The Alaska Marine Highway system struggled through a nightmarish re-routing of some 40,000 passengers. Many also have some idea of the economic fallout: the Columbia was the only money-making vessel in the fleet, and the $2 million it stands to lose this summer probably won't be recovered fully.
But many fish processors think they were overlooked when condolences were passed out.
"We're the forgotten ones, but rarely are vans (stocked with fish) not going out on the ferry," said Dave Ohmer, plant manager at Norquest Seafoods in Petersburg.
Many Alaskans incorrectly claim that chum is used mostly for roe. How damaging could the loss of one ferry be to the chum industry?
In a word, extremely.
"Alaskans are snobs about salmon because we can get always get sockeye or coho or king," said Barbara Belknap, executive director at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute in Juneau.
However, Belknap said, "The chum salmon is what makes up most of the U.S. market."
On the slime line: Workers clean chum salmon at Taku Smokeries during the summer of 1999.
MICHAEL PENN / THE JUNEAU EMPIRE
In fact, she said, many of the finest restaurants in the Lower 48 serve chum.
"Go around the country and, primarily, you'll find chum salmon at seafood counters," Belknap said. "Except for people in salmon-savvy places like the Pacific Northwest or California, people like chum because it's a milder-tasting fish. It's more flavorful than farmed salmon and it's not too expensive."
Even with the current glut of chum on the market, the 'dog' fetches a tidy profit in the Lower 48. So when the traditional schedule to Prince Rupert, which connects to the road system south, is slowed, the fishing industry is too.
"If you have five ferries and you try to put the same amount of traffic onto four, who takes priority?" asked Marty Bunes, vice president at Seafresh, a division of Ward Cove Packing. "A tourist with a Winnebago, which is too bad, because the Alaska state ferry was put into place to help the locals, the community."
Sen. Kim Elton agreed.
"Fish are the first to be bumped by people, luggage or mail," he said.
Bunes said Seafresh processors in Excursion Inlet and Ward Cove were guaranteed ferry service five or six days a week when the fleet was at full strength. Now, there are times when he can get guaranteed space only on Monday and Thursday.
"So what kind of a commitment can I make to a customer?" he asked.
Elton, a former commercial fisherman, feels for the industry but said the ferry system "is trying to make accommodations. They've demonstrated the flexibility people want from a government bureaucracy."
There are other shipping options for processors. A barge or jet could move fresh fish out, but barges are slower and jets are extremely expensive.
"Southeast ships out 150,000 or 200,000 pounds of chum each week," said Sandro Lane, founder and owner of Taku Fishery and Smokery in Juneau. "The airlines don't have the capacity for that. Plus, they charge 35 cents (per pound) versus 10 cents in a container."
A fish with as high a value as a sockeye might be flown out. But while chum is more valuable than most Alaskans acknowledge, it must be transported in a more cost-effective manner.
Lane said the Malaspina, now being used as a day boat to Skagway and Haines, was his company's salvation.
"We're using the boat pretty successfully," Lane said, noting that shipping his chum north to Haines and then trucking it south gets the fish to market while still fresh. "It bailed us. We would have been sunk if that boat (the Malaspina) had been scrapped or sold like they had talked about. We would have been out of business for fresh fish this summer."
And freshness is the key, Lane said. Processors can freeze chum and ship it at a more leisurely pace, but it raises the cost and drastically reduces the marketability of the fish.
"Once chum is in the freezer and competes with other frozen fish, they lose," Lane said. "They can compete with farmed (salmon) on the open market as fresh. They have more value to the industry and our state as a whole as fresh fish."
Dave Ohmer, plant manger at Norquest Seafoods in Petersburg, painted a different picture. He said that the frozen chum market has been an effective option for his firm this year.
"Early on, when the (ferry) schedule decreased, we were concerned about what it would mean. But as the season progressed it was only a slight problem," Ohmer said. "The main thing is the frozen market started to strengthen and our marketing changed. It (the loss of the Columbia) didn't impact us as greatly as we feared."
Most agree that the Alaska Marine Highway System has worked hard to overcome the loss of the Columbia. For instance, a special southbound run of the Taku in mid-March enabled processors to get halibut to Prince Rupert quickly.
"They didn't have all the answers, but there was an effort and it worked out OK," said Norquest's Ohmer.
However, Seafresh's Bunes said it took "forever" to get the new ferry schedules.
"We've had to do extra things and incur extra costs to get it (a shipment) done," said Bunes. "Has the volume of fresh fish been affected? Yes. But you just have to make it work."
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