In the tiny Southeast Alaska community of Pelican, a seafood processing business is trying to figure out how to get its product where it needs to go.
Yakobi Fisheries typically ships about 150,000 pounds of seafood — salmon, halibut, rockfish and more — throughout the summer via the state ferry system. But Alaska’s ferry workers have been on strike for about a week now, and the state’s vessels have been docked. That has sent a shock through communities that rely on the ferries to transport people and goods.
“I’m in panic mode, instead of making sales and doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” said Yakobi Fisheries owner Seth Stewart. He’s planning on the ferry scheduled for Aug. 4 not to come if the strike continues. “Our freezers are filling up.”
The state’s ferries serve more than 30 coastal Alaska communities on the 3,500-mile Alaska Marine Highway System route, which winds through channels in the Southeast and stretches all the way to the Aleutians. Workers represented by the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific went on strike last Wednesday over contract negotiations with the state. The stoppage has affected not just residents and local businesses but also visitors who flock to Alaska during summer.
People are stranded in the island community of Kodiak with their rented motor homes, city mayor Pat Branson said Tuesday. Some food vendors from Juneau who went to Haines for a big fair last week have lingered around town because they can’t catch their ferry back home, said Margaret Friedenauer, executive director of the Haines Economic Development Corp.
One of the stranded is a Juneau pretzel stand. Peterson’s Pretzels went to Haines via ferry for the Southeast Alaska State Fair, which started the day after the strike began. The fair has now ended, but Peterson’s Pretzels remains “grounded” there, the business said in a Facebook post.
As of Tuesday, the food trailer had set up shop next to Miles Furniture, sharing the store’s power and water until it can return to Juneau.
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” another of its Facebook posts said.
Some people are able to escape. Friedenauer was out berry-picking Tuesday morning off the highway in Haines when she saw a line of RVs heading north. Many more than usual, she said.
“They’re all driving up through Canada," she said. "I assume most of these were going to be on a ferry to Bellingham, and now they’re driving up and around and down, from what we can tell.”
Many communities that rely on the ferries are not accessible by road at all. The situation is even more extreme in tiny Pelican, population 88. Floatplanes can land on the water there, but the town has no airport. Barges hardly ever go there, said Mayor Walt Weller.
This past week has added to anxiety that was already palpable in the Chichagof Island hamlet. Before the strike began, communities were set to have diminished ferry service in the near future because of state budget cuts.
“As mayor, I literally have people come up to me that are frightened by the whole thing,” Weller said. He also commented on what he said is a misconception that remote Alaska communities rely on the ferry “to save a couple bucks” on groceries.
“There’s an awful lot more going on than that," he said. "We have tens of thousands of pounds of stuff come in here once a month when the ferry comes in. This isn’t about trying to get your milk less expensive.”
Yakobi Fisheries plans to deal with the stoppage by sending out its product on a boat that holds much less seafood than the ferry. On Tuesday, the business was moving fish from its normal shipping boxes into insulated totes. Whereas the ferry usually comes once a month, this smaller boat might have to run every week, Stewart said.
“It’s ridiculously expensive to do it that way,” he said. “We can’t just not do business.”
Negotiations between the state and IBU have been ongoing since the union’s last three-year contract expired in 2017. Representatives with the Alaska Department of Administration and the IBU met with a federal mediator over the weekend with the goal of making progress. Talks were recessed until a later date, the state said Monday. Tuesday marked the seventh day of the strike.
Alaska’s ferry system has 11 ships, with nine in service: Aurora, Columbia, Kennicott, LeConte, Lituya, Malaspina, Matanuska, Tazlina and Tustumena. The last time IBU’s ferry workers went on strike before last week was in 1977, and that one lasted 20 days.
Branson, in Kodiak, likened the ferry stoppage to the federal government shutdown earlier this year, which stifled that city’s economy.
“The marine highway system is our road system, and we’re shut off,” Branson said. “There’s air travel, of course. But you can’t bring in cars or lumber on the airline.”
Lack of ferry service is tough for small villages that have come to depend on the vessels over the years, said Shayne Thompson, owner of general store Angoon Trading Co. on Admiralty Island.
“When they went on strike, it immediately started affecting our supply chain,” Thompson said. That means most everything “from soup to nuts,” he said. Most of Angoon’s cargo arrives via ferry, he said. People also use the ferry to get to medical appointments or make trips to places like Juneau to shop at Costco.
In Pelican, people understand some cuts to service, Weller said, and even if they didn’t “it’s not like we can say no.” But he’s also concerned about next year.
“It’s kind of a nail-biter out here in Pelican,” said Weller. “Everybody understands delays, and everybody understands costs. What people have a hard time understanding is when they say, ‘You’re just not going to get a ferry.’”
The state had refunded $3.1 million to 7,832 passengers for canceled reservations as of Tuesday evening, Alaska Department of Transportation spokeswoman Meadow Bailey said in an email. DOT directs people who want to inquire about a refund to call 1-800-642-0066.
In response to reports of fraudulent text messages targeting ferry passengers, DOT also put out a reminder Tuesday afternoon that staff with the Alaska Marine Highway System will never ask for credit card numbers while processing a refund.
“The State Security Office alerted AMHS to fraudulent text messages targeting AMHS customers waiting for a refund due to canceled sailings,” DOT said in a written statement. “These text messages instruct recipients to call a phone number. After dialing the phone number, recipients are then asked to provide a credit card number over the phone. These text messages are fraudulent and should be ignored or deleted.”