Intrafish: “The universe of AK salmon fishermen is shrinking fast.”

Since 2019, the number of AK salmon permit holders is down by more than 23%, writes Intrafish.

by | April 3, 2024

Filed Under Processors | Salmon | Trends

Upheaval in AK’s seafood processing sector has fishermen wondering where to turn, writes John Fiorillo

Put yourself in the shoes of an Alaska salmon fisherman.

You’ve fished for Peter Pan Seafoods for years. You deliver your fish to the company and expect to get paid.

But getting paid has become an issue for some fishermen that supply the company. A slew of liens against the company were filed over the past six months as Peter Pan’s owners struggle to get the company on solid financial footing after a year of weak market demand, falling wholesale prices, cost inflation and rising interest rates — a toxic mix that could cave in the company.

The start of the Alaska salmon season is now six weeks away and those fishermen who fish for Peter Pan are having to make hard choices. Some are bolting, seeking a new buyer — maybe Trident Seafoods, Silver Bay Seafoods, Canfisco or the upstart floating processor Northline Seafoods.

But there is no guarantee any of the other fishing companies will welcome Peter Pan fishermen looking for a new place to sell their fish, which could leave many high and dry and facing their own personal financial disasters.

Some fishermen are having to cut lose loyal, longtime crew members who travel to Alaska for the season. No sense keeping crew if you aren’t sure you will get paid for your fish. Let them loose to sign on with another salmon boat.

Some fishermen are choosing to skip this season entirely and wait for the chaos of the last two years to settle and see which companies survive.

And it’s not just fishermen facing tough decisions. Government leaders in towns where Peter Pan and other processors operate processing plants are worried about the damage that could be done to their local communities if a company closes plants.

Already, Peter Pan has temporarily closed its King Cove, Alaska, plant, costing the city of King Cove millions in tax revenue needed to provide basic services to its roughly 800 residents.

The company said it will open the facility for this year’s salmon season, but many are skeptical.

Peter Pan is also looking to sell its plant in Valdez, Alaska, to rival Silver Bay, but the potential sale has been dragging on for months, leaving fishermen confused as to who might be buying their fish this year. It’s even more unclear what the plans might be as their owners mull a puzzling acquisition.

It’s easy to lose site of the fishermen in this high-stakes restructuring of the Alaska salmon sector. Every major processor is under some level of financial distress — some more than others.

Trident Seafoods, for example, announced in December it is selling off a third of its 12 processing plants in Alaska to help it reorganize its finances. Others, too, have had to quietly pump millions into their businesses to stay afloat.

Trident has reached an agreement to sell its processing plant in Petersburg, Alaska, to E.C. Phillips & Son, and it is selling its plant in Ketchikan, Alaska, to Silver Bay.

While those dramas play out, the Alaska salmon fishermen universe is shrinking fast, and the ongoing problems in the sector could likely lead to further contraction.

A total of 5,577 individual permit holders who made commercial salmon landings in 2023, a 9 percent decrease from 2022 (6,126 permits) and a 12.3 percent decrease from 2021 (6,362 permits).

Since 2019, the number of Alaska salmon permit holders is down by more than 23 percent.

These are messy days for the nearly 150-year-old Alaska salmon industry, but there remains hope that once this current restructuring runs its course the sector will be streamlined and profitable for all.

But that is little solace for a fisherman adrift and trying desperately to figure his or her next move.

Any comments, complaints or retaliatory rants, please feel free to email me at john.fiorillo@intrafish.com.

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About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.

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