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New Icicle CEO touring Alaska facilities

Cooke Aquaculture

Pal Angell-Hansen, who came from Icicle parent company Cooke Aquaculture, is checking out the dynamic wild-caught seafood operations in Alaska, including Bristol Bay. 

Cooke Aquaculture bought Icicle Seafoods in 2016, and Pal Angell-Hansen, a Cooke executive, took the top position at Icicle back in February. He is touring Icicle facilities in Alaska, including the salmon processing plant in Egegik just ahead of its peak.

Angell-Hansen toured the Icicle processing facility in Egegik for the first time last Saturday, five months into his job as the company’s CEO.

Angell-Hansen has experience in the seafood industry as the COO of farming for Cooke Aquaculture, but this is his debut as the head of a company specializing in wild caught salmon.

“People sometimes ask ‘why did Cooke being a farming company get into wild fisheries?’” he says, reflecting on the inherent challenges of processing wild salmon. “Up until the primary processing plant it’s very different—wild fisheries and farmed aquaculture—but after primary processing, whatever you can do with a wild salmon you can do with a farmed, and visa-versa.”

Cooke plans to put out more fresh wild caught product, much in the way it has done with farmed salmon, but the challenges of doing so are significant. The size and timing of Alaska salmon are highly variable, and processing the catch at remote facilities is much different than at controlled salmon farms. Cooke invested heavily in new equipment for its Icicle processing plants, but did not get the expected return with the weak pink run last year.

“Of course, [the] pink season last year wasn’t as expected,” said Angell-Hansen. “That affected the whole industry—also Icicle—but we have owners that are committed. They’ve invested significant amounts of money over the last twelve months to support the business.”

To add to the difficulty, Icicle plants are short staffed with workers this season, as restrictions to work visa programs have made it difficult to hire unskilled labor from overseas.

“This year has been a challenge. We are a bit short. It seems to be the whole industry is, and of course with the visas, the H-2B’s was a big disappointment and made it more difficult,” said Angell-Hansen.

The Icicle fish processing facility in Egegik was understaffed by about 25 percent late last week, according to management, but they are still hiring new workers and hoped to be up to the full 310 person crew before the peak of the Bristol Bay run. Icicle also processes at Wood River in Dillingham, and on the Gordon Jensen, and after an unusual three million catch day Monday, July 3, in Bristol Bay, the company was one of the very few that had not gone on catch limits.

Credit Nick Ciolino / KDLG
Workers at Icicle Seafoods in Egegik at the lunch hour, just a few days before the Bristol Bay run really started to push.

Icicle's CEO said if the run starts to overwhelm their operations, they may filet less and put more into cans, using other facilities around the state as needed.

“Yes, at some point you have to prioritize. Of course, we want to be able to take all the fish that our fisherman manage to get hold of, and we need to prioritize the product format to be able manage all that. So yes, it could have an effect on product format, which is not ideal, but we’ll manage,” said Angell-Hansen.

Angell-Hansen is touring the Icicle processing facilities in Alaska before returning to the company’s headquarters in Seattle. 

Contact KDLG's fisheries reporter Nick Ciolino at fish@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281