Bristol Bay fishermen are chilling their fish like never before.
Last year 71 percent of the nearly 1,400 drift netters chilled, based on processor surveys of 12 processors, and unchilled setnet deliveries dropped below 22 percent.
In 2016, nearly 40 percent of Alaska’s total salmon value came out of Bristol Bay. When fish there fetch a higher price, it ripples throughout the industry.
Two former Bay fishermen want to boost those numbers even higher. They’re converting a 150-foot helicopter logging barge into a floating fish processor.
Plans are to operate it next summer on the banks of the Ugashik River about 85 miles from the nearest processing plants at Naknek.
“There are a lot of communities in Alaska that can’t support a full-time cannery or a processor with that many people, because they don’t have enough volume. If an outfit like this can get by with less overhead, lower labor costs, they might be able to park it in front of an isolated area and process the fish at a more effective cost.”
Co-owner Ben Blakey says the barge will freeze up to 300,000 pounds of whole sockeye salmon per day and employ about 20 people, compared to the 200 or more needed to run a shore based processor.
They’ll provide ice and help reduce the time the salmon spend in the fish hold before being delivered, especially for the many boats that don’t have onboard chilling systems. Co-owner Pat Glaab.
“There’s a real need in the bay for chilled fish. There’s nobody in the world who wouldn’t say that there isn’t a portion of that fleet that hasn’t the ability to take care of this fish properly. We feel this thing will fill that need.”
Glaab built the Leader Creek plant and Silver Bay Seafoods at Naknek. The revamped barge is his 11th fish processor.
He and Blakey operate as Northline Seafoods out of Sitka, where they plan to test out the new floating, four level plant on pinks this summer.
If it’s successful, the duo plans to build at least three more brand new barges at a cost of about $5 million each.
Thanks to the assist from KCAW in Sitka.