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Blue Water, Silver Salmon And Red Ink


Letter From Alaska

BLUE WATER, SILVER SALMON--AND RED INK

For much of the year, Alaska's Kodiak Island is cloaked in rain and clouds. But the four fishermen on the Aimee Nicole have enjoyed clear skies for nearly a week, and just now the sun is beating down with almost tropical intensity. Just off the bow rise white cliffs and green mountains. The water has an inviting turquoise hue, but the temperature is in the 40F-50F range--cold enough to kill someone.

Up on the bridge is skipper Tom Stafford. His boat has been working this rugged stretch of coast for more than a week and has scooped up several thousand red salmon. That's more than last summer, but Stafford is making less money, because the market for reds has collapsed to 80 a pound, about half of what Kodiak fishermen received last year. "We were hoping for a dollar," Stafford says. "If we could see that, we could still make ends meet. But at 80 , it just doesn't compute."

The price could go even lower, as wild, ocean-caught Alaskan salmon faces more and more competition from the farmed fish of Canada, Chile, Scotland, and elsewhere. Today, Alaska is the world's largest salmon producer, with more than 130 million fish caught each season. Farmed salmon are scooped up all year long. And the big Japanese buyers increasingly are turning to farmed fish and to the huge salmon runs of the newly opened-up Russian Far East.

CAPSIZED. "Farmed-fish production has soared," says John Lotzgesell, treasurer of Kodiak Salmon Packers Inc. in the Aleut village of Larsen Bay, about 15 miles from where Stafford is fishing. "The quality is increasing in Russian reds. We no longer have the market to ourselves." So prices will continue to drop. Already, some fishermen are in bankruptcy or have lost their boats to the banks.

This is traumatic change for an industry that has deep roots in Alaska's history. The salmon fishery began more than a century ago, and the push for Alaska statehood in the 1950s was in part a rejection of domination of the fishery by Seattle canneries that used river-mouth fish traps to take salmon on their way to spawn. The new Alaska state government banned such traps, which endangered future generations of salmon, and eventually Alaska had more than 10,000 salmon fishermen. The fishery now accounts for some 30,000 seasonal jobs and brought in $575 million in 1992.

Lotzgesell manages one of the state's most remote processing plants, built more than 80 years ago by a Seattle packer. Today, the Larsen Bay plant processes some 14 million pounds of fish a season and employs 150 people. Most workers come from the Lower 48: college students who want a taste of life in Alaska's "outback." Art Bislund, a plant supervisor, is now in his fifth season. A law student from Idaho, he has had only a couple of days off since he arrived at Larsen Bay in early June. At the start of the season, he weighed 245 pounds; he's lost 30 pounds while working as much as 120 hours a week. By summer's end, he expects to gross more than $10,000 to help finance his next year at school.

COLD BLAST. Bislund is in charge of a blast-freezing operation. The blast freezer is aboard a docked barge, and at -25F can freeze red salmon hard as brick in a few hours. Workers don bulky Arctic suits to haul boxes of fish in and out of the freezer in an operation that goes on day and night. Nearly all of the frozen salmon is shipped to Japan. The sorting and grading is monitored by checkers from KyoKuyo Co., the Japanese importer that buys Kodiak Packers' fish. Lotzgesell trusts KyoKuyo to give him an honest assessment of the market and pay a fair price.

But Stafford and other fishermen question how the market really works. "When we have these valleys," he says, "it seems like the fishermen are the ones that suck it up--not the processors." If that continues, Stafford, 27, may have to rethink his plans to keep on fishing. He grew up on Kodiak, the son of a plumber and heating contractor who migrated to Alaska from Ohio. His father supplemented his income by harvesting halibut, and at age 16, Stafford got his first job as a deckhand, just as the fishing industry was beginning to recover from a botulism scare triggered by a can of contaminated fish.

By the late 1980s, the market was back, and the price of red salmon climbed to record highs of more than $2.40 a pound dockside. Crewmen took home paychecks of $70,000 to $80,000 for a summer's work. Skippers earned much more, and many were able to buy costly new boats with souped-up engines and fancy high-tech gear or spend their winters in Hawaiian condos.

Since then, though, prices have slumped. Two years ago, demand was so poor that fishermen dumped more than 5 million pounds of Prince William Sound pink salmon that no processor would buy. In other parts of Alaska, low prices triggered strikes by fishermen. Strikers tied boats to their docks, and fishermen who went out risked having their nets and boats sabotaged.

This year, with prices at all-time lows, a few groups of fishermen again talked strike, but the movement fizzled. "I would say strike," says Stafford, who supported the 1991 strike. "But what I have seen in the past...is that strikes just cause a bunch of animosity. There is conflict created there that goes on for years."

Stafford isn't expecting a market turnaround anytime soon. He works winters as a carpenter to get by, and he's cutting his debts and trimming expenses. The Aimee Nicole, for example, was salvaged from a bay bottom. Stafford and his father-in-law (and partner) spent the winter refurbishing it.

Stafford also has tried to improve his lot by changing fishing grounds. He sold his permit to fish Prince William Sound for $100,000 and bought a $100,000 permit that lets him fish off Kodiak. He now has a longer season to pursue red, pink, silver, king, and chum salmon around the glacier-cut fjords and rocky coasts of the 100-mile long, largely roadless island.

RAZOR CLAMS. When the fishing slows off Kodiak, Stafford motors north across the Shelikof Strait to fish off the Alaska Peninsula. It is a place of glaciers, gravel beaches, and huge grizzly bears that he sometimes sees digging in the surf for razor clams.

Stafford is one of about 340 skippers with permits to fish the Kodiak district. On this Sunday, he shares the point with three other seiners. According to an unwritten code, each crew is allowed to cast its nets for 30 minutes at a time, then they must haul in and give the next boat a chance. "We try to work together," Stafford says. "This seining is kind of a gentlemanly fishery."

But now, as fish prices plunge, some politicians in Juneau are talking about buying back permits to reduce the size of the fleet to make salmon fishing more profitable here. Such talk gets a cold reception in coastal villages. "It punishes the fishermen for the situation in the world market," says Heather McCarty, whose family operates a salmon boat in Prince William Sound. "You're talking about taking away people's livelihoods, and I've got a problem with that."

The fishermen prefer to expand their markets, especially in the U.S. Stafford is encouraged by the Kodiak McDonald's experiment with a Salmon McNugget and similar efforts to develop salmon filet markets on the East Coast. Meanwhile, the Aimee Nicole has spent much of this Sunday with nets stacked on deck. The crew has been idling, watching a big brown bear and her cub as they roam a nearby hillside. Late in the afternoon, it's time to fish. The salmon are right off the point, searching for signs of a freshwater river.

Stafford maneuvers the bow of his boat up to a cliff face, as a crewman in a skiff drags the net out from the Aimee Nicole's stern to hang like a curtain in the current. The skiff gradually shapes the net into a hook, then pulls it into a circle. As the crew beats the water with metal plungers to scare the salmon toward the center of the net, the end is cinched tight and hauled on deck.

The net contains a meager catch of fewer than 20 salmon vs. more than 200 salmon caught in a set earlier that week. "This is what you call scratch fishing," Stafford says.

Two other boats try the point and also come up with little. Then, as the summer sun softens into the long northern twilight, Stafford steers a course across the strait, seeking a new spot to drop his net.HAL BERNTON


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