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Fishermen face processing gap of 8 million fish: How processors plan to handle a record run

Workers process fish at the Wood River plant in 2016, now owned and operated by OBI Seafoods
Workers process fish at the Wood River plant in 2016, now owned and operated by OBI Seafoods

Seafood companies say they intend to purchase 52 million Bristol Bay sockeye this season. That’s according to Fish and Game’s processor survey, which the state conducted this spring. It surveyed Bristol Bay’s 15 main salmon processors, and those companies estimated a daily processing capacity of roughly 3 million fish.

The state predicted that a record-breaking 60 million Bristol Bay sockeye could be available to harvest this season. That leaves a gap of roughly 8 million salmon between the available harvest and what processors expect to buy.

That foregone harvest could amount to over $100 million, according to the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, which has urged processors to boost their capacity across the bay this season.

Travis Roenfanz is the plant manager of Peter Pan Seafoods’ Dillingham facility, one of the biggest industry processors. During an interview in mid-June, he said the plant’s processing capacity is over a million pounds per day.

"Basically, the easy math for me is, I figure about 50,000 pounds an hour, our capacity here locally is a little over 1.1 million pounds," Roenfanz said.

Roenfanz said that’s with roughly 570 workers in the Dillingham plant, processing fish 24 hours a day, seven days a week..

Peter Pan also plans to boost processing capacity by transporting fish to their other facilities in Port Moller and King Cove.

“A big part of our program this year will be exporting fish out to those other facilities to maximize them as well," he said.

In recent years, some processors have had to halt fishing to keep up with the huge harvests, and some fishermen had to sit on the beach while millions of fish swam by. Roenfanz says Peter Pan Seafoods doesn’t plan for that to happen this season.

"Our goal this year is to keep the nets in the water all the time. You know, we've got such a big run coming, we think. And it's all about supporting the fleet and keeping those guys fishing as long as the department (of Fish and Game) will let them fish," he said.

Entry level pay for Peter Pan’s seafood processing workers this year is $15.85 per hour, with overtime hours and pay expected. Roenfanz says they’ve also boosted recruiting efforts over the last year, and are fully staffed. He says if needed, they’ll continue hiring for the facility throughout the season.

“We've added additional HR folks who are staffing, and really gone all out on recruiting this year," he said. "And I'm very happy to report that we will be fully staffed, and we'll have folks continue to come in as we need them. So I think we're very fortunate in that this year.”

Other Bristol Bay processing companies, including OBI Seafoods, Silver Bay Seafoods, Leader Creek and Ekuk fisheries did not respond to requests for comment about processing capacity this season.

This year’s projected 60 million sockeye harvest is the largest ever, as is the companies’ projected purchase amount of 52 million fish.

According to Fish and Game’s processor survey, that purchase would be an increase of 25 percent from the last survey in 2019. That would be 10 million fish. They say five processors account for 96 percent of this increase.

Corinne Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer who grew up in Oakland, California. She's reported for KFSK in Petersburg, KHNS in Haines, and most recently KBBI in Homer. This is her second season as a fisheries reporter, and now returns as director of the Bristol Bay Fisheries Report.