Story last updated at 2:54 p.m. Thursday, December 19, 2002

Wards Cove gives up on Alaska salmon plants
Sepp Jannotta

Wards Cove Packing, a company with a 75-year history in Alaska, announced last week that it planned to shut down its salmon processing operations in the state. The announcement came as the company disclosed that, following a three-year run of suffering big losses, the company could not find bank financing to underpin the next year's salmon harvest. The Seattle-based company -- owned by the Brindle family -- told the Seattle Times that it planned to sell its Alaska salmon processing plants. Four of the company's nine plants in Alaska have primarily handled salmon, while the other five, including Resurrection Bay Seafoods in Seward, deal with the products of other fisheries as well. The company told the Times that it will continue to operate Alaska plants that process pollock and crab. Those plants are among the five that the company operated in Alaska last year, meaning that it is unlikely that all of the Wards Cove fish processing jobs will disappear. However, there will certainly be some displacement, both on the docks and in the fisheries. "This is a very sad day for the Brindle family, our employees, our fishermen and our friends throughout Alaska and Washington," Alec Brindle, the company chairman, told the Times. "Unfortunately, due to competition from farmed salmon and weak overseas markets and domestic markets, we have suffered sustained, significant and accelerating losses."

Founded in 1928 in Ketchikan, Wards Cove grew from a single cannery into one of the state's most significant players in the fish processing industry, with plants in Southeast, Kodiak, Cook Inlet, Chignik and Bristol Bay. According to a press release from Gov. Frank Murkowski, all three of the company's plants in Bristol Bay may end up on the auction block. "The economic impact of the closure of Wards Cove on Alaska's salmon fishers and fishing communities could be devastating, so the importance of taking steps to offset the losses is paramount," Murkowski said in the press release. "Wards Cove has been a mainstay of the salmon processing industry for 75 years. They employ 1,500 workers, including 750 directly here in Alaska communities from Ketchikan to Bristol Bay, so this closure will be a major blow to Alaska."

Gov. Murkowski, like Brindle, leveled the finger of blame at the reduction of prices brought about by the glut of farmed salmon on domestic and foreign markets. "Now, we are informed that $100 million in salmon farming infrastructure is earmarked for Prince Rupert, B.C., so the problem continues to grow," he said in the press statement. "There are plenty of fish out there, but at the prices we've seen lately, fishermen can't afford to bring them in." Murkowski pledged that the state would aggressively seek new buyers and markets for its salmon as well as new companies to buy or lease the Wards Cove facilities. Brindle said he is counting on finding buyers for the plants, telling the Seattle Times, "They are in strategic locations, and have excellent operating personnel." One of the reasons Wards Cove did not just put the itself on the market in its entirety is because of its involvement in a class-action antitrust suit filed by Bristol Bay fishermen. With case scheduled to go to trial this winter, the potential liability made it more difficult to sell the company outright, Brindle said.

The Gulf of Alaska groundfish allocations for 2003 were released by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council earlier this month. The new recommended quotas are out for groundfish in the Bering Sea as well, and according to a report by The Associated Press, the two areas are headed in different directions when it comes to pollock and Pacific cod. In the Bering Sea, the North Pacific council has raised the catch amounts for pollock, adding almost 7,000 metric tons to an allowable catch that was in excess of 1.4 million metric tons in 2002. As for gray cod, the catch will go from 200,000 to 207,500 metric tons, while the allowable catch for Atka mackerel will climb by around 5 percent over last season to 60,000 metric tons. The North Pacific council maintains a total annual allowable catch of 2 million metric tons of groundfish in the Bering Sea and along the Aleutian Islands, making adjustments to the amount of the catch from each of the individual groundfish species. While the pollock and gray cod numbers look good out west, in the Gulf of Alaska the allowable catch for those species has been reduced. In 2003, pollock will be reduced to 54,000 metric tons. Gulf fishermen had an allocation of 58,000 in 2002. Similarly, Pacific cod will be down, with an allowable catch of 40,000 metric tons, a reduction of about 2 percent in the fishery.

BRISTOL BAY FISHERMEN are on a U.S. Department of Labor list of workers displaced by shifting markets and eligible for transitional adjustment assistance, a program authorized under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Associated Press reported that about 200 fishermen from the Bristol Bay area have been certified to apply for the assistance, which can range from retraining services, career counseling, job placement assistance and income support.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game will sponsor a seminar entitled "Sea scallop research on Georges Bank: a university-industry collaboration," beginning at noon on Jan. 3, at the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve. The session will be conducted by Bradley Harris of the University of Massachusetts Graduate School of Marine Sciences and Technology. Starting in the 1999, the university and members of the commercial fishing industry began collaborating on video surveys that examine the abundance and distribution of sea scallops and their habitat on Georges Bank, a once highly productive fishery located off the New England coast. During the past three-plus years, the study has completed 22 video surveys, incorporating 700 hours of video footage, and 17,000 digital images of 7,500 square kilometers of seabed. More than 30,000 sea scallops have been tagged to examine growth and movement, and 4,500 live sea scallops have been dissected. According to Harris's abstract on the subject, the purpose of the university's research is to promote "living marine resource conservation by precisely assessing sea scallop populations, examining the environmental impacts of scallop fishing gear, and mapping" the sea scallop's habitat. This research has aided in developing limited fisheries in the closed areas of Georges Bank, resulting in a catch reportedly worth $30 million in 1999 and $25 million in 2000, while at the same time reducing the effects of fishing on the sea floor by greatly reducing dredging time. Fishermen working the Georges Bank have endured some of the nation's most well-documented crashes of fish stocks.

Sepp Jannotta can be reached at sjannotta@homer