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Bristol Bay fishermen protest low base price, lack of transparency

Fishing crews anchored at the Naknek River mouth in protest
Jack Darrell
Fishing crews anchored at the Naknek River mouth in protest

By 9 am, over one hundred boats are anchored in the Naknek River entrance, some after a night of fishing the Naknek-Kvichak. Ivan Basargin of the fishing vessel Top Notch is one of them. He’s here to join the demonstration against this year’s low price. Basargin has fished in Bristol Bay since the late 1980s and builds fishing boats in the offseason. Standing in the wheelhouse of a boat he built, he says this year’s low-price hits hard.

“I’m going to pay my workers. I’m going to pay my bills. As far as living expenses, I haven’t decided yet. This 50 cents that I get, when I get home, it’s going to be a wash. I’m not going to have any money in the bank saved,” he said.

Organizers of the protest are calling on processors to reconsider and improve the base price this season from 50 cents per pound, less than half of last year’s price.

Without change, many fishermen say it’s unsustainable for the industry, and some say they will go home in debt. Basargin says he’s out on the water today because he fears accepting this year’s low base price will set a precedent.

“If they know we can fish for 50 cents, we’re going to get paid 30 cents next year,” he said. “That will happen if we don’t do anything. Like today - this is a peaceful protest. We’re not trying to block people or anything. We’re just trying to show the world that we’re hurting, and we need some help.”

Basargin says processors are claiming they are struggling financially too but he hasn’t seen evidence of this struggle.

“After a record fish catch last year, processors are complaining they are losing a lot of money. I see processors expanding. I see them buying other companies out,” he said. “If you look at the scenario, it kind of seems like they are putting a burden on us. They’re adding up their profits and expanding operations.”

Trident Seafoods was the first to post that base price on Sunday, with some handling incentives: $0.15 for refrigerated sea water and ice, and for the drift fleet $0.05 cents for floating and $0.10 for bleeding. North Pacific Seafoods announced the same a few days later, along with Peter Pan Seafoods, who also is offering a 20 cent bonus for “late season” fishing beyond July 18.

Organizers are also calling for processors to resume posting a base price ahead of the season. In recent years, Peter Pan Seafoods posted a price in mid June, which was welcomed by fishermen. This year, processors did not release a price in Bristol Bay before fishing started. Fran Kaul, a longtime captain, says with prior knowledge of the low price, fishermen may have planned differently.

"It’s very interesting that the price came out pretty much at the very end of the season. They had all our fish, right? The fish had been caught. And then Trident posts fifty cents a pound," she said.

 A Bristol Bay fishermen radio group protest processors in the Naknek River
Jack Darrell
A Bristol Bay radio group protest processors in the Naknek River

Cheyne Blough has been fishing in Alaska for 35 years. He fishes for Trident and helped organize this protest, prompted by Trident’s price announcement letter to the fleet. His children crew on his boat in the summers but he has discouraged them from buying into the fishery.

“The last thing you want is your children to get strapped to hundreds of 1000s of dollars worth of debt, and then have the rug pulled out from under them,” he said. “And that's what's going on. I didn't think it would happen quite this way, quite this fast.”

Adjusted for inflation, this year’s base price is the lowest recorded price in nearly 40 years, since 1984. Without adjustment for inflation, this year’s price is still the 3rd lowest, the lowest was in 2001.

But Blough says he’s seen the quality of the fish sold to processors improve over that time. According to Blough, as fishermen’s investments in labor and equipment have risen to meet the market demand - things like storing fish in refrigerated seawater and bleeding them - the quality of fish has improved, and its market value has risen. Except, fishermen have not seen any of that revenue, he says, while bearing all the cost.

But Blough says he’s seen the quality of the fish sold to processors improve over that time. That’s due to fishermen’s investment in equipment and labor, according to Blough, but it’s not reflected in prices offered by the processors.

“We've been asked to make expensive capital improvements, a regular RSW system, we hire an extra deckhand so we can bleed the fish. They have quality control people on every tender going, your fish is good, your fish is bad, you need to do better,” he said.

Blough says fishermen bear the cost of these improvements, but don’t benefit from the resulting revenue.

“And what do we get in return? We get half the price. And in my opinion, the processors need to do better. I cannot believe I've been fishing for 35 years, and I'm fishing for less base price than I did when I was in my teenage years,” he said.

Kelly Stier on the F/V Honey Badger says processors are taking advantage of fishermen, knowing they have few choices for buyers in the region.

“We’re out here, and the processors know that. They have us, and it does take a lot of infrastructure and they do have expenses on their side of things, but I think they’ve taken advantage of us because they know they have us backed into a corner,” he said.

Anna Mounsey is a new skipper on the fishing vessel Syren. She says younger members of the fleet, like herself, are questioning if this industry is worth buying into.

“As a new fisherman, new skipper, trying to make it in this fishery, just starting out, the unsustainability with overhead and the price fluctuations, [we’re] just seeing if it’s even worth it,” she said. “with how much it fluctuates, not being able to count on making boat payments and all the other expenses that come with just starting out, being young. Watching this graying fleet leave, what hope do us young fisherman have with the vulnerability of this market?”

KDLG made repeated email and phone call requests for comment with the largest processors, Trident Seafoods, OBI Seafoods, North Pacific Seafoods, Silver Bay Seafoods, and Peter Pan Seafoods but without returned comment.

Some fishing crews heard the news and ended their season. Others continued fishing, in an otherwise strong season with harvests over 36 million fish to date.

Vessels in the Naknek River entrance
Jack Darrell
Vessels in the Naknek River entrance

Jessie Sheldon is a fisheries reporter for KDLG. She has spent several summers working in Alaska, both on the water and in the recording studio. Jessie is passionate about marine ecosystems, connection through storytelling, and all things fishy.
Jack Darrell is a reporter for KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. He is working on the Bristol Bay Fisheries Report and is passionate about sustainable fisheries and local stories that connect communities and explore the intersections of class, culture, and the natural world.
Christina McDermott began reporting for KDLG, Dillingham’s NPR member station, in March 2023. Previously, she worked with KCBX News in San Luis Obispo, California, where she focused on local news and cultural stories. She’s passionate about producing evocative, sound-rich work that informs and connects the public.
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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