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Bristol Bay fishing fleets plan protest in Naknek River to oppose processors' low prices

 Crews pick a big set
Courtesy of Glen Nash
Crews picking fish in Egegik

Bristol Bay fishermen from Dillingham to Naknek are planning a protest on the Naknek River entrance on Thursday, July 20 to oppose seafood processors’ low price for fish.

“It's such a shock, to not only see a lower price, but one that's less than half of last year, all in one year,” said Naknek fisherman Cheyne Blough of the F/V Get Lost is one of the organizers. “It's devastating,”

He says they plan for a peaceful protest, anchoring from 6am to 6pm to demonstrate fishermen’s outrage at processors’ posting a base price of 50 cents per pound for sockeye.

“Some of us are on a radio group, and when the 50 cent base price came out, we were discussing everything,” he said. “And we're like, there's something really, really wrong with the industry right now. We've made heavy investments into infrastructure in recent years to yield higher prices. Our costs just keep going up, we added crew members for bleeding. And the price keeps going down.”

On Sunday, Trident Seafoods posted the 50 cent per pound price, with some handling incentives. North Pacific Seafoods announced the same, along with Peter Pan Seafoods, who also is offering a 20 cent bonus for “late season” fishing beyond July 18, according to the global seafood news outlet Intrafish.

Blough says it’s the lowest price he’s seen in his 35 years of fishing, and it’s unacceptable.

“We hear lots of different things, lots of different excuses,” he said. “One year, it's small fish, next year's big fish, the next year, it's too many fish. The next year is too little fish. It's COVID, and now we're even here, and it's Russia. And so we knew that all the fishermen were about to head home. So we batted back and forth the idea of some kind of protest, to let others know that this is not going to work in the future. There's too many people going to go under if this continues.”

Alaskan processors Trident Seafoods, Peter Pan OBI, Silver Bay or North Pacific did not return KDLG’s requests for comment.

Market analysts have cited a surplus in the record harvest from last year, plus falling consumer demand, among others, for the lower price. In the letter to the fleet, Trident CEO Joe Bundrant also cited the Russian war with Ukraine, and low prices for Russian seafood competing with Alaskan salmon.

Blough says at Thursday’s protest, there’s no intention of blockade or interference with the Naknek harbor. It’s a demonstration to show fishers’ unity.

“We're not trying to blockade, we're not trying to stop tenders. We're not pointing fingers at any particular processor. We're just trying to draw statewide attention that there's a serious problem within our industry,” he said.

Blough says this low of a price will put some fishing crews into debt, especially younger fishermen or those new to the fishery.

“I know kids in Dillingham that have just strapped themselves to $500,000 to $600,000 worth of debt,” he said. “And, and as we all know, you're not going to catch the most fish when you're just starting out. And we're strapping our youth to a bunch of debt. Then it's like a bait and switch, go out and go fishing and make some money, make your payments, and feed your family. And, and we've made it impossible for them to even make a state payment.”

Blough says this low price will also hit tax revenues relied on by local Bristol Bay communities. He says they’re urging processors to reconsider and improve the base price

“There's some things that just don't make sense to us right now, in regards to that price,” he said. “We have at least three processors that have promised somewhere between 15 and 20 cents, in addition to their late fish. And so if we have a glut in the market, and the majority 95% of our fish that we already caught is only worth 50 cents base price. Why do they want us to continue fishing? And why are they offering more? And so Absolutely, we're looking for that base price to be bumped up.”

Number two, Blough says the fishing fleet is tired of price secrecy in the industry. In recent years, Peter Pan Seafoods announced a base price in the beginning of the season which was productive, he said. No processors posted a price this year, and Blough says that needs to change.

“We're pretty much done going fishing with a blank slip, and go and pay us whichever you want,” he said. “That's probably one of the biggest things that I'm hearing is that people want to change so that they can make decisions before the season on how they're going to go about things or whether they even want to participate.”

Blough says it’s a desperate situation not only for Bristol Bay but fisheries across Alaska, and wants to see political action, including from the legislature and Governor Dunleavy. He says it’s not just about this season, but the future of the fishery.

“We're just looking to draw attention to what's really going on,” he said. “We don't want to go home with everybody in the state thinking things are okay, again, they just got a lower price, we got a price that's going to bankrupt this industry. And it's not okay. And we need help from the governor to look into things and see what we can change.”

Blough says they welcome Alaska processors reaching out to discuss these concerns, and hopefully negotiate a better outcome to this season.

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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.
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