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Silver Bay Seafoods agrees to pay fine for illegal dumping in the Naknek River

Dock on the east side. 6.19.2021
Mackenzie Mancuso
Boats on the east side near Naknek. June 19, 2021.

In 2017 and 2020, the Sitka-based processor went over the 10-million-pound discharge limit. It said it has identified "corrective actions" to avoid excess dumping this season, but it did not specify what those measures are.

Sitka-based Silver Bay Seafoods earlier this month agreed to pay a fine of $467,469 for illegal dumping at its Naknek River facility in Bristol Bay. The company has also agreed to address violations of its state permit to discharge pollutants.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation said in a press release that Silver Bay “repeatedly discharged significantly more fish waste into the Naknek River than permitted” in 2017 and 2020. State inspectors also found numerous violations at the facility during a scheduled inspection last year, like discharging bloody water.

Processors are allowed to discharge up to 10 million pounds of fish waste into surrounding waters. Randy Bates, the director of water at the Department of Environmental Conservation, said Silver Bay did ask permission to discharge more. The department denied them.

“We said, ‘No, you cannot go over that 10 million pounds,'" Bates recalled. "They voluntarily went over that each of those years, knowing that there was a hard limit at 10 million pounds.” 

Bates said that in 2017 Silver Bay went over by 2.9 million pounds. In 2020 they exceeded the limit by 5.1 million pounds, and reported the violations to the state after the fact.

Silver Bay Seafoods’ Naknek facility processes about 2 million pounds of fish a day. Bates says that’s much more than other processors in the area.

“The other facilities there probably don't discharge nearly as much as Silver Bay Seafoods do. So while I believe that all of those facilities operating up there that operate under the general permit they all have that 10 million pound limit, I don't think that there's anybody else coming close to that 10 million pound discharge limit," he said. "Most of them are around at 100,000 pounds, give or take a bit here and there.”

The Department of Environmental Conservation has a number of conditions that companies should meet when they discharge fish waste. The waste must be ground up.

"We have major currents that move up with the flood and out," Bates said. "So the majority — if not all — of that material that comes out of those pipes, not only at Silver Bay Seafoods, but all the operating plants and facilities that have a discharge like that into these inter-tidal river systems. The discharge that comes out of those pipes is flushed either upstream or downstream pretty significantly.”

This is not the first time Silver Bay Seafoods has paid fines for illegal discharge. In 2019, the company settled a lawsuit with the Environmental Protection Agency for excess dumping.

Silver Bay Seafoods did not respond to a request for an interview. In an email, Director of Communications Abby Fredrick said “Silver Bay Seafoods voluntarily implemented corrective actions before the settlement was finalized. We are confident those measures will ensure compliance for this season and beyond.”

Bates said in both 2017 and 2020, the state gave Silver Bay other options for disposing of the fish waste.

“You could gurry it, you could transport it to another facility to grind and discharge, you could take it on a gurry vessel out to deeper waters where we would allow them to permit them to discharge it,” he said.

DEC talked with the company over the winter about how to avoid going over the 10-million-pound limit this season, said Bates. He explained that options include the company contracting with one or more tenders to take the waste further offshore to dispose of it, freezing waste in blocks and turning it into pet food, and transferring fish to other facilities.

The fine also considers other violations the company committed last year. During a routing site inspection, DEC officials saw a Silver Bay tender discharge seafood processing water into the river.

Tenders generally keep fish cool in refrigerated sea water until they go to processing plants to offload their catch. The DEC's Bates said when the plant sucks out the fish, the tender is supposed to process the bloody water and through the facility as well, so that it can be cleaned and properly discharged.

“But sometimes, counter and contrary to what the permit says, the tender or the other vessels sitting there will pump out that water straight out into the river. We don't allow that," he said.

Bates said that Silver Bay’s nearly half-million dollar fine for the excess discharge into the Naknek River will go to the state’s general fund.

Get in touch with the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.