Copper River Seafoods no longer buys salmon from Cook Inlet due to declining harvests

Sockeye salmon. (Courtesy Redoute Reporter)

Another seafood processor is leaving Kenai this salmon season. Copper River Seafoods is winding down operations at the former Snug Harbor Seafood plant, leaving a major salmon processor in the area but promising to add a new business soon.

Processors like Copper River buy catch from commercial fishermen and bring it to market. As commercial fishermen have grappled with declining salmon runs and management changes, processors from Kenai to Homer have also left, leaving anglers with fewer options.

In a letter, Copper River CEO Scott Blake said these factors were behind the end of salmon buying on the Kenai Peninsula, as well as rising production costs.

The letter did not call for any particular change in direction, and a spokesperson for Copper River Seafoods could not be reached before airtime.

The biggest recent change to the commercial fishing landscape in the region is the impending closure of much of Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishermen. This change was approved by a federal council at the end of 2020 and will come into force for the first time this summer, barring a last-minute legal blockage.

Opponents of the decision warned that closing the fishery would also eliminate local processors. This part of Upper Cook Inlet accounts for just under half of this region’s income.

But even before the board’s decision, the Transformers were backing out of entry, Nikiski’s Paul Dale said. Its processing operation, Snug Harbor Seafoods, was sold to Copper River in 2019.

“Processing has changed in the Cook Inlet area, in the Kenai region, for probably 20 years,” Dale said.

The erosion of processors has been constant, Dale said, as fishing weather and opportunities have diminished. Over the past decade, in particular, the size and value of Cook Inlet’s salmon harvests have plummeted, shrinking nearly 10 processors to just a few.

Dale said Copper River has reduced operations since operating the Kalifornsky Beach Road plant for the past three years.

“And while they haven’t had the success they hoped for in Cook Inlet, that doesn’t necessarily mean that different businesses aren’t successful in Cook Inlet, or might be able to be successful in Cook Inlet,” said Dale.

Audrey Salmon, office manager of the local drift association, UCIDA, said Copper River stopped buying fish from Kasilof fishermen last year. After that, many anglers took their business to Pacific Star, which is now the only Kenai-based processing plant for the drift fleet. OBI Seafoods in Homer also sources fish from Kasilof and Ninilchik.

Others have begun to market their catches themselves. Salmon said these fishermen – called “catch processors” – have become more popular in Cook Inlet as more processors have left.

Copper River indicated in its letter that it will be replaced with a new processor.

This company, Rogue Wave, has no digital footprint. Copper River’s letter says the company will soon make an announcement about what its presence in the area will look like. He also said buyers would buy from Kenai, Kasilof and Ninilchik.

Copper River, meanwhile, said it will continue to work on groundfish programs in Homer, Whittier and Cordova.

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Tanya S. Norvell