Sockeye Yield May Signal Recovery

Fishermen in Bristol Bay are catching scads of sockeye, notching the second consecutive strong season for the state's most important commercial salmon fishery.

Fishermen in Bristol Bay are catching scads of sockeye, notching the second consecutive strong season for the state's most important commercial salmon fishery.

By Friday, gillnetters had landed more than 22 million fish and seemed likely to eke out close to the 25.6 million sockeye state biologists had predicted before the season began in late June.

Not only are the sockeye thick, but fishermen are getting more money for them compared to last year, adding hope that the Alaska salmon industry is beginning to float, if not leap, out of its deep economic depression.

With fishermen beginning to put their boats into winter storage and head home Friday, the major processors -- including one that weathered a near catastrophe -- were paying a base price of 60 cents a pound. That's 10 to 15 cents better than last year, though still a far cry from the late 1980s, when sockeye spiked to more than $2 a pound.

The fishery is on course for a total dockside payoff of perhaps $90 million, compared to last season's $76 million on a catch of 26.3 million sockeye.

"A good portion of the fleet has paid their bills and are taking home a small paycheck," said David Harsila, a gillnetter and head of the bay's main fishermen's association. "That's probably going to put smiles on a lot of people's faces."

Detracting from the higher fish prices were higher expenses, including diesel fuel running at $3.05 per gallon around the bay, Harsila said.

Bristol Bay annually attracts thousands of fishermen and cannery workers to catch and pack a monstrous sockeye run like none other.

It's mainly an export fishery -- more than half the salmon are canned and sold mostly in England and other countries with ties to the United Kingdom, with the rest frozen and shipped to Japan.

But more sockeye is beginning to dribble into the coveted Lower 48 market, where Alaska's wild fish are gaining favor as an alternative to foreign, farm-raised fish that have come to dominate world salmon markets over the last decade. The rise of farmed fish has caused a crash in the value of Alaska's catch, and fishermen, processors and state economic development officials are struggling to compete.

This year's Bristol Bay catch, if it reaches forecast size, would be above average for the last decade, when catches ranged from 10 million fish in 1998 to 44 million in 1995.

Norman Van Vactor, a long-time Bristol Bay manager for Seattle-based processor Peter Pan Seafoods Inc., said this season's salmon run was explosive at times.

He said he flew his Cessna 182 over the Egegik River fishing district one day and saw something incredible in the slate water below: "It was literally a wall of fish pushing through. In all my years up here, I've never seen anything like it. It was incredible to see from the air."

Egegik, about 30 miles southwest of Naknek, is one of five fishing districts in the bay, and as often happens, fishermen there caught more than anywhere else. Egegik yielded 35 percent of this year's catch.

Peter Pan operates a historic cannery at Dillingham, and this season plant workers had to contend not only with a swarm of salmon but a pulse-pounding crisis.

It's a classic old cannery, a little factory town with tin-clad warehouses, piers made of heavy fir timbers, a big mess hall and bunkhouses for hired hands to sleep in between long shifts.

Trouble came early on the morning of June 27, just as the migrating sockeye were starting to hit hard and crews were beginning to put in long days heading, gutting and packing fish.

"About 1:30 a.m. one of our foreign-exchange cannery workers, who was working on the cleanup crew, smelled something and stuck his head out the door," Van Vactor said. "He noticed a plume of smoke coming out the end of our powerhouse building. He was the one who sounded the alarm. My wife and I had just fallen asleep, and she heard him scream. Needless to say, I pulled on a T-shirt and my pants and didn't bother to tie my shoes."

The cannery's fire brigade went into action. The powerhouse blaze was sending embers over the dock fronting the Nushagak River. Things were exploding inside.

Over its century-plus commercial fishing history, Alaska has seen many a cannery go down in a spectacular bonfire. "For a while, I really thought we were going to lose the whole enchilada," Van Vactor said.

Dillingham's volunteer fire department was able to get the blaze under control and save the cannery.

But power was lost for four days, knocking a serious dent in the cannery's production. Many sockeyes had to be hauled in big boats to another Peter Pan plant at King Cove.

Van Vactor said he could only take the fire, like the bay's notoriously fickle fish runs, in stride. "It's typical for Bristol Bay -- expect the unexpected," he said.

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News