Biologists predict another massive run of sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay this summer, raising questions in commercial fishing circles about whether the industry will be able to keep up.
The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, which represents the region’s commercial driftnet fleet, is urging processors to build capacity to maximize the value of the catch and avoid harming future runs if too many salmon return.
“We’re in unprecedented territory when it comes to forecasting, so we’ve never had a test like this to see how it would go,” said Andy Wink, the association’s chief executive.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicts a record 75 million fish will return to Bristol Bay rivers this summer, with 60 million available for harvest, according to the Commercial Fisheries Division. of the agency.
But the agency reported earlier this year that 15 major commercial processors said they planned to buy 52 million salmon from Bristol Bay, according to a survey. This amount of fish purchased would also be a record.
The large gap between expected yields and expected processing means fishermen could have to give up large numbers of fish and could easily lose $100 million, Wink said.
The group encouraged processors to bring in more floating processing capacity to supplement onshore processing facilities.
“Processors, harvesters and fisheries managers are gearing up to make the most of 2022, and these efforts are very commendable, but with such a large forecast it raises the question of what will happen if processors and tenders cannot keep up,” the group said in the update.
Processing companies do not disclose their plans. A representative for OBI Seafoods, which has three processing plants in the Bristol Bay area, declined to comment.
Norm Van Vactor, managing director of Silver Bay Seafoods, which operates a processing plant at Naknek in Bristol Bay, said the prospect of another epic salmon harvest is a “pleasant dilemma” for a processor.
Salmon returns to Bristol Bay have been exceptionally strong in recent years, although other areas of Alaska have seen declining returns, he said. A record 66 million salmon returned to Bristol Bay last year, and about 40 million were harvested, the state said.
Silver Bay and other Transformers are keeping their plans close to their vests, Van Vactor said. But he thinks they’re all looking at options to increase treatment this summer.
“I have to believe without a doubt that everyone is doing everything they can to maximize the efficiency and capacity of the plants in the area and looking at how to get extra fish out of the area, like putting them on planes to fresh markets or use faster vessels to process it elsewhere,” Van Vactor said.
One of the concerns this summer is whether there will be enough tenders or delivery vessels to quickly move fish from fishing boats to processing plants, Wink said.
Another problem is the industry’s constant challenge of finding enough workers for a short period of treatment in a remote area. This has been complicated by increased competition for workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
“Given the labor situation and the tight labor market, it will be difficult to maintain processing capacity where it was,” Wink said.
Van Vactor said there are many uncertainties that will determine whether fishers and processors can harvest all the salmon available. This includes the weather and whether the salmon return in a crushing wave or in more stable numbers that allows the various fishing districts in the region to keep pace.
“Ultimately, Mother Nature will dictate how this plays out,” he said.
The H-2B visa program, often used by fishing processors and tourism businesses in Alaska to bring in foreign workers, will help processors overcome difficulties finding workers, he said.
The US Departments of Labor and Homeland Security announced late last month that they will make available an additional 35,000 visas for non-farm workers in the US for the summer.
“With tourism and fishing season fast approaching and the economic fallout we’ve seen from COVID, it’s critical to ensure Alaskans have the workers they need to supplement our local workforce.” , Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in a March 31 statement.
Chris Barrows, president of the Seattle-based Pacific Seafood Processors Association, said in the same statement that federal agencies must take steps to ensure foreign workers can arrive in time for the summer season.
They will be a “lifeline” for some seafood processing companies that might otherwise be short-staffed this summer, he said.