OPINION: Fighting for our lives in King Cove

King Cove has been home to a seafood processor since 1911 and has had a year-round fishery for the past 50 years. Until now...

by | June 5, 2024

Filed Under Markets | Processors

King Cove is located on the south side of the Alaska Peninsula in the Aleutians East Borough. (Courtesy Aleutians East Borough)

By Warren Wilson, Mayor of King Cove
Anchorage Daily News
May 26, 2024

I have always appreciated the wisdom of these words: If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. I am a fisherman; one of my grandfathers was a fisherman and the other one was a lifelong employee of Peter Pan Seafoods. My father was a fisherman, my brother is a fisherman and my mother, for much of her working life, worked for Peter Pan. We live in the southwest Aleut community of King Cove. For my extended family and all the other families like mine, we rely upon our knowledge of the ocean, our skills in the harvesting of fish, and a fish processor that pays a fair price. At the end of each day, we enjoy the satisfaction of hard work paying off.

We relate to water the way a farmer relates to his soil as he runs his hand through it. It is our place of work, but also a place for reverence; it is our livelihood, yes, but it is also bound up in our identity. We feel the spirit of our ancestors on deck with us as we leave safe harbor for the open sea. Water demands respect and never lets you take it for granted, or you will pay a price. This is the world as it is supposed to be.

Similarly, seafood is more than our currency, it is a mainstay of our diet, it connects us to our Aleut past, and it anchors us in the present. King Cove has been the home to a seafood processor since 1911 and, for the past 50 years, a year-round fishery. It is crab in fall and winter, salmon in summer and bottom fish year-round. We take pride in having such a high caliber of sustainable practices, that not only is our seafood praised throughout the world, we will bequeath a bountiful ocean to our children so that they too can make a living on the water and return to this place called home. The world when it makes sense.

Until now.

As King Cove’s mayor, it hurts my heart to say that it has taken only a few short months for me to no longer recognize my world. Events have conspired to threaten our very existence.

Warren Wilson, king cove mayor

A collapse of our incomes, individually and citywide, the shock of realizing that municipal projects, many years in the making, may grind to a halt. The whip of cold dread that is blowing along our city streets these days, as our elder residents take in that for the first time in 50 years there will not be a year-round fishing season, or a functioning processing plant, with all the employees and commerce and support systems that exist to support a business of that size, not to mention the tax income that the city has presumed its budget was safely built upon. And while we might weather this terrible year, if we knew there was a buyer for the plant on the horizon, the heaviest blow of all is the heart-stopping realization that another year like this one, and our spiral will all be downhill.

Peter Pan Seafoods didn’t just fail to pay many of our fishermen for last year’s catch, they didn’t wait to tell us until the very last minute that they would not be open for the 2023-2024 winter fishery. Then at the last minute, giving the local crew and the city no time to prepare, they told us the unthinkable; they would not operate during our summer salmon season either. By the time we could process the sound of a door slamming shut, we learned that the plant would be closing, perhaps forever, and that they were nearly $100 million in debt.

The financial consequences are devastating. Our city’s annual general fund revenue budget is about $3 million, with about 70% of that amount coming from local and state fish taxes and our city sales tax on boat fuel and retail sales to support the King Cove fishing fleets.

We are doing what we can to stabilize our budget by pulling from our modest savings, using some of our anticipated crab disaster funds from the disastrous 2021-23 snow crab seasons, and by finding ways to reduce our general fund expenditures. However, these numbers represent people that I know, and it feels like just another kick to a town that is already down.

Please do not mistake us for the faint of heart. Just like farmers at the mercy of their weather, we have experienced droughts before, prices or volume of fish have been too low before, events have impacted us, and all manner of other challenges have punctuated our lives. But this is a triple whammy: It is an immediate drain on our savings account, there is no reason at this moment to believe next year will be any better, and we risk losing valuable momentum on a multitude of projects, projects that made all kinds of sense when we thought there would be a robust fish processing operation in our town.

• After 10-plus years of engineering and permitting, we have 60% of the required funding for our new solid waste processing facility using air curtain burner technology to incinerate up to 90% of the community’s waste stream. We planned this $7 million facility, in part, to accommodate the large industrial and residence waste generated by a plant with more than 500 transient workers in an average year; those workers are now gone.

• We have federal funds earmarked for upgrade and expansion of our groundwater wells and distribution systems. The primary impetus for this project was to expand our municipal water system to serve the water demands for ourselves and for Peter Pan Seafoods’ need for hundreds of millions of gallons of water annually.

• Last but certainly not least, we have bragging rights to two highly successful hydroelectric facilities that produce more than 80% of the power that we need. For years, we have been in increasingly serious discussions with Peter Pan about how to best sell them our surplus power. Engineering is almost complete on how to connect our grid to theirs, and how ironic it comes at a time when their plant is now completely shut down. Our best hope now is that this will be an enticement to a new owner.

I walk my city’s boardwalks and I confront a horrible truth: In no time at all, a robust fishing community that traces its beginnings back to 1911 might become a ghost town. Our self-sufficient ways may not be enough this time. Yet I also know that were it not for our fierceness, we’d never have made it this far. For now, I am consoled by the collective passion we have for this place and the steel of our resolve to be fishermen with an economic future once more. We will do our part and we have hope that others will step up for us as well. After all, home is not just where the heart is — home is where the world makes sense.

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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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