Shipper to begin weekly barge service to Cordova

PHOTO/James MacPherson/AJOC
Alaska Marine Lines will begin weekly barge service between Cordova and Seattle in April.

The announcement in late December from the Seattle-based shipper, a subsidiary of Lynden Inc., has brought praise from Cordovans and area fish processors who say freight rates to and from the roadless Prince William Sound community should drop sharply.

Alex McKallor, president of Alaska Marine Lines in Seattle, said his company made the decision to come to Cordova largely based on the support from area residents and seafood processors.

"We spent a lot of time talking to them and felt in the long run this will be good for Cordova," McKallor said.

Alaska Marine Lines will build a new $1 million dock for its barges and will invest another $3.5 million for 100, 53-foot long refrigerated containers to transport its share of the more than 30 million pounds of salmon, halibut and black cod processed from the Prince William Sound area, McKallor said.

Permitting and construction issues may delay dock construction somewhat, but the first scheduled sailing from Seattle is April 2, McKallor said.

For more than two decades, Alaska Marine Lines has provided service to Juneau, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Sitka, Petersburg, Haines, Skagway, Kake, Yakutat, Prince of Wales Island and the Yukon Territory in Canada.

Cordova, McKallor said, was a natural fit.

"We’re new to Cordova, but we’re not new to the market,’’ McKallor said. "Cordova is the kind of market we are very familiar with."

Alaska Marine Lines’ primary customers are mostly grocery stores in Southeast, but the company has worked extensively with fishing, mining and timber industries, McKallor said.

Alaska Marine Lines’ sister company Alaska Railbelt Marine took over as the barge contractor last February for the Alaska Railroad Corp. In Whittier, Alaska Marine Lines transfers barge shipments to rail. Those shipments mostly include pipes and other supplies and heavy equipment used in oil field operations and maintenance.

Instead of going directly to Whittier, those barges will now make a stop in Cordova, McKallor said.

Cordova has one of the longest commercial fishing seasons in Alaska, beginning in May with the Copper River salmon run and continuing into October.

The community currently is served by Samson Tug & Barge Co. and Totem Ocean Trailer Express Inc.

Bill Deaver, vice president and general manager of TOTE’s Alaska division, said his company runs up to five freighters a week through the fishing season and twice a week the remainder of the year for mail and groceries, Deaver said.

Feeder vessels transfer containers from the town’s dock to an oceangoing freighter that then offloads in Whittier. Containers are shipped by rail to Anchorage, then loaded on a southbound ship to Tacoma. The entire trip takes about four days, Deaver said.

Bill Gilbert, plant manager of Norquest Seafoods Inc. in Cordova, said his company will use Alaska Marine Lines, which at six days transit time, will be a day or two slower to Seattle than TOTE but about 20 percent cheaper.

"It’s considerably less expensive,’’ Gilbert said. "When we can save money, we will."

His company processed and shipped more than 11 million pounds of fresh and frozen seafood last year. The town’s two other major processors, Ocean Beauty Seafoods Inc. and North Pacific Processors Inc., shipped similar amounts of fish, he said.

Gilbert said Samson’s freight rates are cheaper, but the product doesn’t arrive in the Lower 48 for two to six weeks, since the barge company stops in Valdez and Kodiak before heading to Seattle.

"(Alaska Marine Lines) is just a little more expensive than the slow boat,’’ Gilbert said.

It’s not just the town’s fish processors who benefit, Gilbert said, because residents can ship everything from vehicles to heavy equipment on the new barge service. He suspects with the new competition, freight on northbound products from groceries to gasoline will be less expensive.

Fishing is the economic base in Cordova and the more shipping options the better, said Margy Johnson, Cordova mayor and business owner.

"Lowering the cost to the processors has been the No. 1 goal of mine,’’ Johnson said.

"We’re delighted they’re coming into Cordova," Johnson said of Alaska Marine Lines. "They are first-class operators."

01/13/2002 - 8:00pm