Alaska biologists are forecasting another massive run of sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay this summer, raising questions in commercial fishing circles about whether the industry in the Southwest Alaska region will be able to keep up.
The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, representing the area’s commercial driftnet fleet, is urging processors to boost their capacity to maximize the fishery’s value and prevent harm to future runs if too many salmon return.
“We’re in unprecedented territory as far as what is forecast, so we never had a test like this to see how it would go,” said Andy Wink, executive director of the association.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicts that a record 75 million fish will return to Bristol Bay rivers this summer, with 60 million available for harvest, according to the agency’s commercial fisheries division.
But the agency reported early this year that 15 main commercial processors said they expect to buy 52 million Bristol Bay salmon, according to a survey. That amount of purchased fish would also be a record.
The large gap in expected returns and planned processing means fishermen might have to forgo large numbers of fish and could easily lose out on $100 million, Wink said.
The group in February highlighted the problem in an article on its website and encouraged processors to bring in more floating processing capacity to supplement shore-based processing facilities.
“Processors, fishermen, and fishery managers are gearing up to make the most of 2022, and those efforts are highly commendable but with such a large forecast it begs the question of what happens if processors and tenders cannot keep up,” the group said in the update.
Processing companies are not divulging their plans. A representative with OBI Seafoods, with three processing plants in the Bristol Bay region, declined to provide comment.
Norm Van Vactor, a general manager with Silver Bay Seafoods, which operates a processing plant in Naknek on 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 even as other areas of Alaska have experienced declining runs, 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 processors are keeping their plans close to their vests, Van Vactor said. But he thinks they are all looking at options to increase processing this summer.
“I have to believe without question that everyone is doing everything they can to maximize the efficiency and capability of plants in the region and looking at how to get extra fish out of region, like putting it on planes for fresh markets or using faster vessels to process it somewhere else,” Van Vactor said.
Among the concerns this summer is whether there will be enough of the tenders, or delivery vessels, to get a surge of fish quickly from fishing boats to processing plants, Wink said.
Another issue is the industry’s ongoing challenge of finding enough workers for a brief processing period in a remote area. That’s been complicated by increased competition for workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
“With the labor situation and how tight the labor market is, it will be challenge to keep processing capacity where it’s been,” Wink said.
Van Vactor said there are many uncertainties that will determine whether fishermen and processors can harvest all the available salmon. That includes the weather, and whether the salmon return in an overwhelming surge or in steadier numbers that allow different different fishing districts in the region to keep up.
“At the the end of the day, Mother Nature will dictate how this unfolds,” 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 U.S. departments of Labor and Homeland Security announced late last month that they will make an additional 35,000 nonagricultural worker visas available in the U.S. for the summer.
“With the tourism and fishing season right around the corner, and the economic fallout we have seen from COVID, it is vital to ensure Alaskans have the needed workers to supplement our local workforce,” Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a March 31 statement.
Chris Barrows, president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, said in the same statement that the federal agencies need to take steps to ensure that the foreign workers can arrive in time for the summer season.
They’ll be a “lifeline” to some seafood processing companies that might otherwise be short-staffed this summer, he said.