NorQuest Seafoods won't can pink salmon next season, a move that affects about 15 seiners in Southeast and hits on the broader question of markets for struggling salmon fishermen.
"Canning salmon is a very difficult proposition in this day and age, and we're going to take our company and work on higher-value specialty seafood products," said NorQuest Vice President John Sund.
NorQuest is looking to see if any other companies are interested in operating its Petersburg cannery, Sund said.
The company does business with about 15 seiners in Southeast Alaska, said Doug Mecum, director of the state Department of Fish and Game's Commercial Fisheries Division.
"Those people are now without their prior market and they're going to need to find other markets. I don't know at this time if all those individuals will be able to find markets," Mecum said.
Terry Gardiner, president of Seattle-based NorQuest, said the company probably will buy about one-third of the pink volume it usually purchases. He said he doesn't know how many fishermen will continue to do business with the company.
"They're checking out their options. They're independent businessmen and they're looking for the best deal they can find," Gardiner said.
Juneau fisherman Roy Smith was planning to sell his boat before he received word of NorQuest's plan, so the announcement didn't affect him much.
"I'd been struggling with just how long I was going to stay in the fishery the last couple of years," Smith said.
He had seined for NorQuest since 1985.
"The number of fish (they buy) hasn't changed all that much, but the price has dropped from, say, 30 cents a pound down to 9 cents," Smith said.
Mecum said he expects most of the fishermen affected by NorQuest's decision will find markets.
"Most of the fishermen are longtime fishermen, and they're more on the upper end of the spectrum in terms of their catching power and success," Mecum said.
NorQuest will continue to freeze, fillet and smoke pink salmon, Sund said.
Mecum said Fish and Game is tentatively forecasting a run of about 50 million pink salmon in Southeast, down from last year.
Stephanie Madsen, vice president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, said she doesn't see a trend among processors to stop buying pinks.
"I do think what you have seen in the past and will continue to see is people trying to match their productions with the marketplace that they have for pinks. When you look at the canned market and the surplus, that's a major concern," Madsen said.
Last year some fishermen pushed for the governor to allow foreign processors in to provide more markets for their pink salmon, but a Fish and Game processing capacity survey found the domestic plants would be able to absorb the catch. Mecum said he suspects there will be enough domestic markets again this year, even with NorQuest reducing its purchases.
Gardiner said he doesn't know whether NorQuest will resume canning pinks in the future.
"That's kind of like whether I anticipate going to Vegas and winning or not. It's not a question you can answer. If you could tell me what the NASDAQ's going to be five years from now, I could tell you whether we will can pinks five years from now," he said.
Masha Herbst can be reached at email@example.com.
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