SEAFOODNEWS.COM  by John Sackton and Peggy Parker – July 27, 2017

While celebrating the fantastic run of salmon into Bristol Bay, which saw sockeye harvests exceed forecasts by 35%, there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction.

Bad governmental policy decisions crippled the Alaska processing labor force, and meant that some packers in Bristol Bay were operating with 15-20% fewer workers than they had originally planned.

This meant first, some processors imposed limits on deliveries, which kept fishermen from landing fish even when the period was still open.

Second, several plants had to shift production from higher-value to lower-value products because they did not have the labor resources to pack the highest-value products, for instance fillets, for the market.

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Finally, many processors who did not impose limits still had to restrict delivery schedules due to the need for their plant workers to physically rest.

In the Bay, where over a thousand permit holders vie for their share of 37 million sockeye salmon, mostly within a one-week time period, a 15-20% shortage in plant workers is big news.

It had a ripple effect throughout the area and the industry.

Vessel owner Larry Christensen, a board member of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, said the record-breaking Nushagak season has served him well, but the limits have been a damper.

“I personally have driven through and away more fish than I’ve ever seen in my life during a legal fishing opener. And that hurts,” he said. “So there’s still things we need to figure out how we can utilize these fish better.”

Other harvesters said they were never on limits, depending on where they delivered. Hector Sanchez of Nushagak, a 30 year veteran, said “Best season ever—excellent season. A lot of fish everywhere; never on limits. We worked for Trident. It worked out great this year. They pulled through.”

In the plants, many processors had to change their product mix without the specialized labor that would have been provided in the H-2B visa program.

The Alaska processing workforce is a unique mix of local hires and temporary seasonal workers. Companies recruit throughout the US at job fairs, with local labor brokers and in other ways, to get seasonal processing workers.

Brian Gannon, who has recruited workers for seafood processing throughout Alaska for decades, warned about this problem at the beginning of the season.

“H2B visas are used for Baader techs, roe technicians, and seafood processors.  Roe techs are cap exempt, the others are not,” Gannon explained.

“2017 was no different [for US recruiting] than any year in the last 20 for seafood processing companies in Alaska,” said Gannon. “They hold job fairs across the US.  They attend career fairs at universities, they work with local employment offices.  They travel to Mexico seeking Green Card holders.  The travel to Guam, America Samoa, and elsewhere.

Last year, Gannon noted, the industry in Alaska used just under 2,000 visas in these categories to supplement American workers.

But in 2017, due to changes in the law, the federal cap was met in early March so only a few hundred H2B visa holders were finalized for Alaska. 

“To make matters worse, the returning worker exemption, which companies rely on to get the same skilled workers back each year, was not renewed by Congress, and expired in 2016,” Gannon said.

The biggest problem may have been the cancellation of the returning worker exemption.  In prior years, skilled workers who returned to the same company year after year were not counted against H2B visa caps.  This year, all of those people were put into the general pool, which then was quickly exhausted.

Nell Halse, a spokesperson for Icicle, owned by Cooke Seafood, said they supplement their recruiting in Alaska with about 20% to 25% H2B visa holders.

“In 2017, the Alaska fishing industry was negatively impacted by the timing of changes in the procedural requirements of the H2B program. This led to an industry-wide labor shortage,” Halse said.

“Companies were unable to fully catch the sockeye salmon available in Bristol Bay because of a shortage of processing workers,” Halse said.

“While Icicle did suspend the fishery for a brief period, it was one of the shortest suspensions in the industry, based on what we heard in the Bay – and we never had to limit our fishing fleets,” said Halse.

But “because of the processing labor shortage, we had to rethink our product form – moving from fresh fillets to canned and frozen –  and we had to adjust crew schedules to accommodate the physical abilities of workers who were struggling to meet the extra demand,” Halse noted.

John Garner, President of North Pacific Seafoods, said “Yes, there was a significant shortage of workers available in Bristol Bay this year, and moreover the “quality” of workers was also impacted.

“H2B is only part of the story, but it is an important part for sure. The late release of additional visas together with stringent requirements to access them made that action of no use for the Alaska salmon processors, in BB or anywhere else,” Garner said.

The biggest surge of salmon this year was on July 3. “Processors had to put constraints on their fishing fleets to preserve the quality of the harvest,” said Garner.

“It also prevented some processors from making preferred products (fillets) for lack of manpower when the most important drive was to get as many pounds through the plant as possible,” he added.

Many processors are equipped with options to transfer fish out of the Bay for processing in other parts of Alaska. During intense landing periods, fresh whole fish are taken to other areas for further processing and/or sales.

“The amount that was transferred out of the Bay was probably more than it would have been were there an adequate work force,” Garner said.

“This, of course, has an impact on what communities receive for the raw fish processing tax.  It generally also means that fish taken out by tender gets canned rather than processed into frozen fillets or H&G.  Roe value is also impacted due to the age of the fish when finally processed in places as far away as King Cove, Kodiak and PWS.”

Another aspect of this year’s run in the Bay was over escapement in some river systems.  The ADF&G biologists who manage the different areas of the Bay all agreed that processing capacity issues make managing an already complicated fishery more difficult.

Decisions are made in a zero-sum matrix: too much fish in the plants trigger a need to suspend fishing or implement limited deliveries.  Too much fish going up the river can mean overescapement, which could increase uncertainty on egg survival through the winter.  And particularly in the turbo-charged Nushagak this year, managers needed to protect chinook salmon stocks by meeting an escapement goal for kings, which not only constrained fishing in the early part of the season, but increased sockeye escapement. Allocations between drift nets and set nets are also part of the management plan, and when plant volumes are limited, that balance is upset.

All of those scenarios played out in Bristol Bay this year. Over-escapement was greatest in the Nushagak District, where the run was more than twice the pre-season forecast.

“Yes, it was certainly more than it would have been had there not been processing capacity issues,” said Tim Sands, ADF&G biologist for that district, speaking on escapement. “However, it was a record run in the Nushagak District and we would have had some escapement above what was needed regardless.”

Quantifying over escapement due to plant worker shortages is near impossible, but all fisheries managers in the Bay agreed that it made management more difficult this year.

“In Egegik we had a large push of fish hit the district in a compressed time frame — July 2 to the 9th — which is trying for industry in the best circumstances,” said Paul Salomone, ADF&G biologist for Egegik and Ugashik Districts.

“Both Egegik and Ugashik were large runs this year,” Salomone said.

“Ugashik is actually within the escapement goal range, while Egegik is the largest since 1995 and fourth largest since Alaska became a state.”

The Naknek-Kvichak District was an exception this year because it had average run sizes for all three rivers.

“This allowed us to keep the escapements within the escapement goal ranges,” reported Travis Elison, ADF&G biologist for the area. “There was more fishing time in the district because of suspensions/limits to help compensate for the reduced harvest power. The allocation was way in favor of the set nets.  I think this was more a function of lack of drift boats than processor limits, but the limits certainly didn’t help the equation.”

The overall picture is that the packers in the Bay pulled together to process ten million more fish than expected, despite in some cases being down 20% in terms of their labor force.

Undoubtedly, had there not been the visa disruption this year, more fish could have been landed; and more higher-value fillet products could have been produced, even with the larger run.

The impacts were felt by fishermen, processors, fishery managers, the community that must forego valuable raw fish tax, and the consumer, by having less choice on product forms and quality.

Alaska processors were thrown a curve ball by Congress, yet they managed a successful season in the face of difficult circumstances, and a record setting run in Nushagak and a near record in Egegik.

“The Alaska fishing industry would benefit from having the returning worker exemption renewed (this had been in place for several years and expired last September),” said Icicle’s Halse, “and by having the cap moved from a semi-annual approval period to a trimester approval period.

“We are coordinating our lobbying efforts for a better H2B program in 2018 with other Alaska seafood processors because we all had challenges getting enough processing workers for the Bristol Bay season.”

Lawmakers would do well to support plans that lead to more economic activity, wealth, and growth in Alaska.

The industry can deal with the vagaries of nature, the unpredictability of salmon runs, and the choices necessary for good management and salmon sustainability. But it is a sad day when poor Congressional decisions throw up additional road blocks that hurt the value and performance of the salmon industry.  These are unnecessary burdens, and we hope they will be quickly reversed for next year.