Alaska Diary | Copper River Seafoods leaves Cook Inlet, a new processor enters the scene
The struggling Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery is losing one processing company and gaining another ahead of its 2022 season.
Copper River Seafoods announced March 28 that it would withdraw from operations in Kenai and Kasilof this year. In a letter to the industry, CEO Scott Blake said the withdrawal was due to a combination of changes to Cook Inlet’s management plan, rising production costs and poor sockeye forecasts. . The company will no longer buy salmon from Kenai, as it did last year; Previously, the company also bought fish from Kasilof, but stopped buying fish there mid-season in 2020.
“We continue to be committed to building strong groundfish programs on the peninsula at Homer and Whittier, as well as at our Cordova location,” Blake said in the letter.
Copper River will continue to operate in Prince William Sound and Bristol Bay, and the company is “always willing and ready to recruit new anglers from these markets, whether they are just starting out, whether they are seasoned captains or want to transfer fishing areas”. Blake wrote. Copper River moved to Cook Inlet in 2019 after reaching an agreement with Snug Harbor Seafoods, a local processor on the Kenai Peninsula.
Blake also noted that another processor, Rogue Wave Processing, would enter Kenai’s market as a buyer. Rogue Wave was launched last November and plans to operate from the same facilities in the town of Kenai as Copper River and Snug Harbour, both as a buyer and a processor. Matt Haakenson, who runs the new company alongside Jason Ogilvie, said the company is still working out some details, but he’s excited to start a business in Inlet.
Haakenson, who was previously fleet manager at Pacific Star Seafoods in Kenai and Inlet Fish before that, said Rogue Wave is essentially a subsidiary of Vancouver-based seafood marketer Calkins & Burke. The holding company owns the facilities and invests in the business; Haakenson said he was hired for his local expertise. One of the reasons he was interested in coming was to help keep an extra processor in the Kenai area.
“Seeing how many processors are gone, we’ve gone from over a dozen to just two,” he said. “(If) we can pull off this operation, we’ll make sure it doesn’t fall below three.”
The plan is to approach members of the Copper River fleet who fished in 2021 and 2020, buy and process fish locally, and retail some of it at the Kalifornsky Beach Road storefront. Haakenson said that’s part of his hope for the company to be a good neighbor: they’d like to sell some of the fish to market people at affordable prices.
Rogue Wave is willing to discuss post-season settlements with anglers to ensure payment is correct, especially in the case of Kasilof anglers, who were unable to fish the entire 2020 season for Copper River. Haakenson said the details of those payments aren’t quite certain yet.
“Copper River had obligations to its fishermen,” he said. “Rogue Wave is committed to fulfilling these obligations.”
The arrival in Upper Cook Inlet as a new processor goes against economic indicators somewhat. Commercial catches have declined in the area over the past 10 years as restrictive management measures limit opportunities. Low chinook returns to the Kenai River mean very limited opportunities for most gillnet anglers along the east side of Cook Inlet due to the current management plan. Last year, set-net fishermen were closed in mid-July, missing the majority of the sockeye run.
This year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game projects an available commercial harvest from Upper Cook Inlet of approximately 1.4 million sockeye; just over half of the 20-year average harvest of about 2.7 million fish.
At the same time, driftnet fishermen face a complete closure of Cook Inlet’s federal waters, known as the Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ. The closure is the result of a multi-year trial and salmon management plan review process through the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council that came into effect this year. With the EEZ closed, drift fishers would be restricted to three nautical miles of shore around the inlet. In the past, fishermen have estimated that about half of the drifting fleet’s catch comes from inside the EEZ.
The federal judge presiding over lawsuits filed by fishermen seeking to reopen the EEZ has indicated he intends to rule by the end of June, just before the start of the Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishery.
Legal proceedings are still ongoing from several fishermen and organizations representing the drift fleet seeking to overturn the decision. Haakenson said Rogue Wave intends to be in Kenai for the long term and hopes the court actions will make the fishery more favorable to commercial fishermen.
Rogue Wave would only be the third remaining processor in Cook Inlet. OBI Seafoods buys salmon from Kasilof and Ninilchik, and Pacific Star operates processing plants in Kenai. E&E Foods, the parent company of Pacific Star, also bought the former Inlet Fish factory off Cannery Road in 2020.
Nate Berga, director of Pacific Star, said the company had been very busy during the cod season this winter and is now heading into the black cod and halibut seasons before preparing for salmon . He said the company has no plans to leave Kenai anytime soon, but understands Copper River’s decision.
“Operating here on the peninsula has been a challenge for the past five plus years,” he said. “Companies have to make decisions to diversify or pull out altogether.”
Berga and Haakenson said they are working to find staff for the summer season. PacStar has regulars from the Lower 48 and the local community, but hires additional people from the Lower 48 when volumes increase. Last year they also started using H2B visas to bring in workers from outside the country, which helps a lot to get through the season, Berga said.
Contact Elizabeth Earl at [email protected].