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Bristol Bay fishermen prepare for quality mandates

Molly Dischner/KDLG

The coming mandate for higher quality fish deliveries in Bristol Bay could be particularly difficult for watershed residents, but some have said it could also be good news in the long-term.

Improving fish quality has been a top priority for groups like the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association and Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation for years, helping get ice on the fishing grounds and providing some of the other gear necessary to ice fish. Now, with coming quality mandates, there’s even more attention on the matter.

At least one Bristol Bay processor, Icicle Seafoods, has told fishermen that they’ll stop buying dry fish in a few years after phasing in quality requirements, and more are expected to follow.

Incentives help encourage chilling fish, but an individual an try to catch more fish to make up the price difference, and different fishermen make different choices. A quality mandate by even one processor will shift that, although fishermen may still have a range of options, from icing with slush bags or insulated holds, to installing a refrigerated seawater system, said Gabe Dunham, the Marine Advisory Program agent for the Alaska SeaGrant at the UAF Bristol Bay Campus.

“We’ll be producing a higher percentage of higher quality fish,” Dunham said.

That bottom line sounds like good news to many. But Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. CEO Norm Van Vactor said it can come with challenges.

“I do have significant concerns that if we don’t facilitate and help support individuals make this step, that there could very well be some folks throw up their hands and say maybe now is the time to sell out,” Van Vactor said.

Local, resident fishing fleets, who generally have less access to capital, sometimes have a more difficult time making the change.

According to data Dunham pulled from the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, 37 percent of nonlocal boats have RSW systems, while just 9 percent of local boats have them. Those numbers, however, don’t include other forms of chilling, like slush bags, and it’s been estimated that about 60 percent of the fleet chills their fish in some form.

“Since the Bristol Bay fleet is less likely to have refrigeration, then it stands to reason that as it becomes required, the Bristol Bay fleet is going to bear more costs, on average, than the rest of the fleet,” Dunham said.

The data also shows that local boats may be more difficult to install a system on, as they typically have a lower mean horsepower and lower vessel gross tonnage, compared to the boats used by nonlocal drifters.

But residents are also in a good spot to get help making the change, Van Vactor said, and the mandate could come with silver linings for the region as well as the industry as a whole.

Price is one potential silver lining, Dunham said.

“If overall production in Bristol Bay sees an increase in quality across the board, then it follows that price should theoretically increase as well,” he said. “I think it’s really going to depend on how quickly this mandate spreads throughout the processing array, or the group of processors here in the bay.”

Van Vactor said another bright spot  is the potential for the marine support industry in the Bay to grow.

“I see the marine support industry growing fairly dramatically in several of the major hubs, like Naknek, King Salmon, and Dillingham and Togiak, to support the vessel upgrades that are going to be needed. And so I certainly hope that our communities take advantage of this, and help with infrastructure and job training that leads toward local employment so that once again we don’t become completely dependent on very expensive labor being brought in from the outside.”

An expanded industry could also help drive prices down, particularly if it operated locally year-round, rather than just in the peak of the season, Van Vactor said.

In the meantime, Dunham said the key to making the transition work is having groups provide education and assistance to the fleet.

“I think it’s important to do whatever we can to prepare our local fleet, to give folks around here the edge, so we can maintain or increase profitability here in the fishery locally,” he said. “…It goes back to the whole permit drift thing too…. Suffice it to say, by working hard to make sure that our local fleet is competitive here in this chilling regard, then it stands to reason that could give us a little bit of an edge when it comes to the whole problem we tend to see where we lose limited entry permits and fishing rights in general.”

SeaGrant and BBEDC are both working on that effort, and Van Vactor said his organization is committed to continuing to support local residents.

Regional Fisheries Coordinator Terry Mann said BBEDC has vessel upgrade programs to help resident fishermen improve their boats, as well as an RSW purchase program that helps with buying the unit.

“We recommend people look at their vessel upgrades, as far as getting their boats ready for an RSW system,” Mann said. “The spray rails, the plumbing, and the hydraulics. There’s just a lot more that goes into, it’s not just a simple unit. Not to say it’s a scary thing. Once you do the class, you’ll have a much better understanding.”

BBEDC’s RSW programs are still being fine-tuned, but the deadline for vessel upgrade applications is April 8.

Refrigeration class helps fishermen prep for installation, operation

Credit Molly Dischner/KDLG
Fishermen look at an RSW system during a class at the Bristol Bay Campus on March 14, 2016.

  One group of Bristol Bay fishermen took a first step toward refrigeration during a mid-March class on how to operate a refrigeration system.

Instructor Doug Cannon, who runs Marine Refrigeration Solutions with Mendi Jenkins, said the class was meant to demystify RSW systems. The class helps participants understand sizing and installation-related issues, as well as how to trouble-shoot once it’s up and running, and maintenance.

“I try (to) take a little bit of the voodoo out of this mystery and educate them so they have a basic understanding of what it is that is working,” he said. “…Because if you understand if, you can keep it alive. And if you don’t, you blame it for things it’s not responsible for and you don’t know what you can do and what you should be hiring to have done. So this is about what you can do as an operator, if it’s not functioning right, what do you check?”

Casey Coupchiak, a Togiak resident who drifts out of Naknek, said she signed up for the class as a first step toward getting her system.

“It was super informative, and it’s taught me a lot,” she said. “I learned to be able to trouble-shoot the system to an extent myself, and it was reiterated to definitely have the manual and if you needed help, call a technician.”

Cannon has worked on refrigeration systems for more than a decade, and also has experience with hydraulics and other heavy equipment work. While working as a technician, he found that fishermen often called him out for simple fixes. He and Jenkins started Marine Refrigeration Solutions after seeing the need to enhance the services provided to fishermen, and also help them better understand the systems. They’ve spent the last three summers in Dillingham, although Cannon has traveled here as a technician for 15. The class will run again in early June.

As part of the class, he also turned a system on and had participants look it over.

Coupchiak said it was helpful to look at the system out in the open, rather than tucked away in a hold. Although Coupchiak, who fishes for Trident, said she was planning to get a system no matter what, the class helped reinforce her decision.

“I want the quality of the fish that I bring to be the best that it can, and I know that’s what the world is demanding,” she said. “Without refrigerating right when you catch them, it’s not the best quality. So I’m working towards that.”