Bay buyers say they can handle full 2016 sockeye run

Mar 31, 2016

The 12 primary processors in Bristol Bay says that they should be able to handle more sockeye than are forecast to be caught this summer. 

An Icicle processing plant is shown in this 2015 photo. Bristol Bay processors say 16 primary facilities, and some long-haul tendering operations, can more than handle the expected sockeye run this summer.
Credit KDLG News

A survey of the 12 primary processors in Bristol Bay says that they should be able to handle more sockeye than are forecast to be caught this summer. But that’s not a guarantee that fishermen won’t be placed on limits.

Each winter, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game surveys the main Bristol Bay processors to get a sense of how many fish they can handle. This year, the major processors, which operate 16 facilities, said they can process 35.5 million fish. That’s more than the 29.5 million harvest forecast.

Fish and Game Regional Management Coordinator Bert Lewis said this summer's outlook is pretty similar to what processors said last year - and what they wound up doing. 

“Last year the forecast was larger and the processors ended up taking almost exactly what they had said they were going to in the pre-season capacity survey," Lewis said. "And that was despite the late and compressed run timing. So even though the run didn’t really kick off until July 8, which is when it’s usually winding down, they were still able to process the 35 million pounds that they said they were going to.”

Lewis said the slight increase in capacity this summer comes from small changes at various plants, like improvements to processing lines, freezer capacity and even changed shipping plans.

Processors reported an expected daily capacity of 2.6 million fish this summer, which they say could be sustained for 17 days. But the survey also noted that’s it’s just a spring look at what the summer could bring, and nothing’s set in stone just yet.

Although the bay’s buyers think they can handle more than the summer’s expected catch, it doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to process as many fish as are caught each day. Lewis said a compressed run, or even just a large one, complicates things.

“And as soon as you start doing 2 million fish a day, they can’t keep up. 1.5 million fish a day, it starts stretching them and it’s hard to maintain that for any period of time with cycling tenders out to the fishing ground, holding capacity of chilled fish before they enter the plant are all factors that end up getting bottlenecked that lead to going on limits.”

Last summer, the run had another tricky element for processors – the size of fish.

“Last year we saw the smallest sockeye salmon weight on record for Bristol Bay, and this complicates the processing and slows down the process because to get the same amount of pounds you have to handle more individual fish," Lewis said. "Also the machinery is set up for larger fish. This also affects the markets too, because the market is better for larger fish. That’s another complicating factor when we are looking at daily bottlenecks and the smaller size of the fish.”

The survey started a couple decades ago as a way to see whether or not there was a need to allow foreign processors back into the bay.

“We do the survey, they look at it, and if there was a significant shortfall, that could be justification for bringing in a foreign processor," he said. "The current survey, we have processing capacity for 6 million fish more than the current forecast harvest. And that demonstrates that if the run comes in on forecast, the industry should be able to process it with the available capacity.”