Southwest communities, processors talk interdependence

In Southwest Alaska, the question isn’t ‘how does your garden grow’ but rather ‘how does your port prosper’?

The answer, according to community and industry representatives alike, is through cooperation between the two.

“We’re all in this together,” said Stanley Mack, mayor of Aleutians East Borough.

Mack was one of several participants in a processor-community panel at the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference in Anchorage Feb. 22.

Each participant talked about what is needed to maintain a health economy in Southwest Alaska communities, where seafood is the primary economic engine.

Dutch Harbor-Unalaska was the top fishing port in the country last year in terms of millions of pounds crossing the docks, and ranked second for seafood value.

Kodiak and Akutan also made the top ten list for volume and value.

And nearly all the coastal communities are reliant on fishing.

Stanley Mack said his borough is a one-horse town — totally reliant on fish.

“We build harbors and docks in our region to support the industry.”

That’s the case throughout the area, said Bud Cassidy, from the Kodiak Island Borough.

“Processors and communities have a strong link,” as do fishermen, Cassidy said.

In Kodiak and elsewhere, processors are the tax base that educates communities and maintains a strong quality of life. In return, municipalities work to provide the necessary infrastructure to support the industry, he said.

Bristol Bay Borough Mayor Dan O’Hara said several processors operate in Naknek. The borough has tried to provide a welcoming tax climate to retain their presence.

“That tax incentive is very important to processors,” O’Hara said.

Every year, the borough meets with processors to talk about how the season is going, what’s working well, and any concerns either party has. That’s led to a “great working relationship,” he said.

Silver Bay Seafoods’ Rob Zuanich said his company will break ground on a facility in Naknek in March. That’s an expansion from its Southeast Alaska roots, but so far the  community has made the process go smoothly, Zuanich said.

“I think Naknek has been very responsive,” he said.

Zuanich said the same holds true of the other communities where Silver Bay operates or wants to get started, like Sand Point, Craig and Sitka.

“In coastal communities throughout Alaska, fish is very important,” he said.

Silver Bay is owned by fishermen, and sees the strong connection between fishermen, processor and community as integral, he said.

Dutch Harbor-Unalaska Mayor Shirley Marquardt said her community has found that reaching out to the industry during the rule-making process helps make necessary regulations more workable.

Dutch is in a different position than some communities, because it has a number of processors, and very little downtime.

 “It’s a constant hum of industry,” she said.

But the communities can’t support the industry alone. Panelists also talked about what the state can help with.

Marquardt said reliable transportation is a major need, and so is affordable energy. Those things help the industry stay afloat, and the make the region livable, she said.

O’Hara said that his community has also worked to ensure transportation is available for processors. When a bridge was out in King Salmon, the borough worked to get the state to fix it so that salmon could be transported from processing facilities to the runway. Well-maintained runways are also vital, he said.

Icicle Seafoods’ Chris Norris said everyone also needs to ensure that the industry will be around for many years to come.

“We need to be diligent about making sure the seafood industry is renewable,” Norris said.

That means ensuring that marine habitats are protected, but also that fisheries are accessible. Regulatory changes that result in death by a thousand cuts don’t help the community, Norris said.

Norris also talked about the need to address bycatch in a way that allows for species to be utilized.

As for the processors, each said they try to be more than just a source of tax revenue for their communities.

Marquardt said that processors are the biggest contributor to nonprofit organizations in Unalaska.

And Zuanich said the new Silver Bay plant in Naknek is trying not to create an extra burden on local infrastructure.

It will actually use the 33 percent of a salmon that is generally considered waste Zuanich said. Doing so is good for the company’s bottom line, and will also keep the community from having to deal with the waste, he said.

Instead of discharging the salmon meal, it will be frozen and used for pet food.

Norris also talked about the University of Alaska’s Fisheries, Seafood and Maritime Initiative, which is an effort to get more Alaskans into the higher skilled jobs. That’s something processors can help support.

And while not every job can be filled by Alaskans, Michele Cochran said UniSea, which has processing facilities in Dutch Harbor and relies on non-Alaska workers to fill many positions, tries to integrate newcomers into the community by ensuring English classes and other educational opportunities are available to them and helping with housing.

Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected].

02/28/2013 - 11:03am