By Julia Lerner
Nome Nugget

June 3, 2021
Icicle Seafoods wants to buy Norton Sound’s pink salmon.

This summer, Icicle, which recently merged with Ocean Beauty Seafoods LLC to create OBI Seafoods LLC, plans to bring a processing vessel as well as four or five fishing tenders to buy pinks from local fishermen and expand their market from Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound.

Icicle’s headquarters are in Seattle, but the company has roots in Alaska. Icicle’s processing vessels operate in Alaskan waters and the shore-based processing facilities are in southeast Alaska, near Anchorage, Bristol Bay, Dillingham and Kodiak; administrative offices are in Alaska, Seattle and Tokyo.

“Icicle Seafoods is pursuing an opportunity to harvest and process the large surplus of pink salmon that have been inundating the Norton Sound river systems,” said Icicle Seafoods fleet manager Dave Bendinger. “As such, we are excited to offer a market for Norton Sound fishermen interested in partnering with us in this effort.”

The seafood company plans to buy as much pink salmon as possible from local fishermen, and effectively operate a floating factory while offering competitive pay, following last year’s dismal fishing season.

Despite low numbers of chums, coho and silvers across the state last summer, pink salmon have seen record returns.

“In the last five years, we’ve had these incredible, all-time runs with pink salmon,” according to Alaska Fish and Game Area Management Biologist Jim Menard. “We’re seeing well over 10 million returning. That’s the one species that’s sort of skyrocketing.”

“Our small streams are overwhelmed by pinks, impacting chum and other fish growth,” according to local fisherman Adem Boeckmann. “It harms the productivity for chum and other fish species.”

With pink salmon returning each year en masse, Bendinger hopes for a more lucrative summer.

“We felt a pinks market would have boosted the take home pay for a lot of fishermen [last year],” he said in a letter addressed to Norton Sound salmon fishermen. “There was certainly no shortage of pinks – that is a curiously healthy salmon resource coming back to your rivers.”

Historically, Norton Sound fishermen have not had a buyer for pinks, as they have been targeted for canning, an expensive and inaccessible process in the region lacking a cannery. By bringing a floating processor to the region, Icicle hopes “Norton Sound fishermen can catch and deliver more fish, without disrupting the interests of Norton Sound Seafood Products,” according to Bendinger’s letter.

This year, Icicle began preparations again to offer a pinks market in Norton Sound for 2021, he wrote. “We did so as a cooperative effort with your primary market and ADF&G, hoping this would guide us to the best outcomes for everybody. I’m sorry to say that three-way partnership didn’t hold up as we’d hoped,” the letter said.

Norton Sound Seafood Products, the primary buyer for Norton Sound salmon, does not typically buy pinks in bulk, though is supportive of local fishermen targeting pink salmon. The Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, which established NSSP in 1995, has a “history of working in partnership with other entities when such opportunities exceed our processing capacity,” according to NSEDC Communications Director Laureli Ivanoff.

Icicle has partnered with the NSEDC to process herring in the past and hoped to do so again this summer for pink salmon. NSEDC declined, citing the potential negative impacts of purse seining in Norton Sound.

Local fishermen have caught fish using gillnets, and NSEDC says the introduction of a new method threatens commercial and subsistence fishers. “NSEDC made clear long ago that we are opposed to the introduction of purse seining in Norton Sound due to its potential negative impacts on our Chinook and chum salmon resources, as well as the resident commercial and subsistence fishers who depend on them,” Ivanoff said. “Further, after a dismal commercial fishery for chum and coho in 2020, the introduction of a new and competitive gear-type yields considerable risk for local gillnet fishermen who are historically dependent on these fisheries. Following good faith discussions with Icicle, we are disappointed that they have chosen to proceed with facilitating this fishery and frustrated that the permitting process for the purse seine permits lacked any notice to, or input from, Norton Sound residents.”

This summer, Icicle intends to buy pinks from independent fishermen who have been granted experimental Norton Sound salmon purse seine permits from the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Bendinger said.

Bendinger says it’s unfortunate that Icicle will not be working directly with NSEDC this summer, though they intend to be good neighbors while here. Icicle hopes to “offer any support that we can to benefit NSSP’s and NSEDC’s efforts to provide the Norton Sound Fleet and the surrounding communities with the best opportunities to capture the most value from this amazing pink salmon resource, while taking special care not to interfere with existing commercial markets, or other subsistence and/or sport fisheries,” he said.

Bendinger told local fishermen that gillnet pinks can be lucrative, but “the simple reality is purse seining is the more efficient and effective means of harvest.”

Icicle also contends that purse seining is safer for incidental catch, including kings and chums.

“Purse seining is an active harvest method that has no contact with the seabed and can have low levels of incidental harvest,” according to Icicle/OBI Seafoods public affairs manager Julianne Curry. “In most circumstances, non-target species or incidental harvest can be returned to the water live.”
In a seiner, fishermen encircle the fish in the water and then pull them out in a net. If they accidentally kill bycatch or incidentally caught king salmon or chum, they’re required to gut, clean, and donate it to the closest village, according to Menard. “If it’s caught in the Unalakleet subdistrict, it’ll be donated to the Unalakleet village.”

So far, three fishermen have been issued experimental purse seine permits from ADF&G. All three are from Alaska: One from the Village of Seldovia on the Kenai Peninsula; one from Kodiak and one from Nome.

“Chums, silvers, and kings are really important to the subsistence and Norton Sound gillnet fleet,” said Boeckmann, the Nome fisherman who was issued the experimental permit. “If it’s possible to target pinks without adversely affecting the important subsistence and gillnet fleets, this pink salmon fishery warrants pursuing.”

“Icicle wants to develop a local fleet, and if this is a viable fishery, the Norton Sound fishermen can develop and prosecute this fishery without an outside fleet,” Boeckmann said. “Without cultivating that interest, though, we could see more outsiders.”

According to the letter to the fishermen, the permits are classified experimental, meaning that the fishermen can fish for a year or up to three years to gather information if a purse seine pink fishery is viable or not.

Icicle stressed the importance of working locally, utilizing Norton Sound fishermen and local Alaskans.

According to a letter to Norton Sound fishermen, the processing vessel, the Gordon Jensen, will anchor off the coast of Elim outside the critical habitat zone by the end of June. Icicle plans to have the tenders buying pinks in Norton Sound from July 1 to August.

“We are excited to offer a market for Norton Sound fisherman interested in partnering with us,” Bendinger said. “We think our added processing capacity will allow for more fishing opportunity.”