Icicle continues to invest at Wood River

Jul 14, 2016

A larger pump barge, new RSW holding tanks, more processing lines, and other improvements have doubled Icicle's salmon processing capacity at the Wood River plant in Dillingham.

Plant manager Samantha Russell and an employee display a Nushagak district sockeye that just came from a tender into the Wood River processing plant.
Credit KDLG

The fish processing plant at the lower end of the Wood River in Dillingham has a long history; so long that it strains city records and elder knowledge to recall the early years.

Going back to 1977, it was run by the New England Fish Company, then by variations of the Cherrier family and Earl King during the 1980’s, 90's, and until Snopac bought the plant in 2008. Icicle Seafoods took ownership of Snopac’s assets in 2013, and the Wood River plant changed hands again.

KDLG's Dave Bendinger has more on the upgrades and investments Icicle has made over the past three years.

Audio transcript: Unless companies have the capital to build from the ground up, the plants that process fish in Bristol Bay will carry reminders of the dreams and disasters of companies long gone by. Such is the case of the plant at the end of Wood River Road. 

"The original building that we still operate out of, I believe was built in 1979,” said Samantha Russell, who has managed the plant since Icicle took over in 2013. “But there were even plants here back in the eighteen hundreds, right at this spot.”

Russell and her core team have been putting their mark on this plant over the past three years. Near the front office, she points out upgrades like a new storeroom for hardware and supplies, the better flooring, lighting, and paint.

"Time was not kind on this poor little plant, so it took the right group of folks to come in here and make a commitment." Russell said “We’ve stuck through it, and now we’ve doubled our capacity."

Processing salmon for one wild month in remote locales is tricky, and Russell says it's the little things that make for smooth operations. 

“Just feels a little more put together, doesn’t it?” Russell said. “Things have their own spot now.”

Labor is of course key, too. After learning from problems with the workforce last year, Icicle and other Bristol Bay buyers are leaning heavily on the H2B visa program this year. Many of Icicle Wood River's 330 employees are from Eastern Europe and Jamaica. The morale around the plant is high, the problems have been few, and Russell says she thinks many will come back next year. How to keep employees happy under the stress of this salmon season?

“Trade secret, I would say you gotta spend a little more money on food, and just take everything one day at a time," she says. 

Icicle has invested in some major big ticket upgrades, too. Wood River has gone from one processing line now to five. The total capacity of salmon in and out has been doubled. New RSW holding tanks can keep up to 400,000 pounds of fish cold in between the tender and the lines. The egg room has been expanded, so the production of high value roe can keep up with the increased volume of round pounds.

And there are those ongoing outdoor chores that every buyer in the Bay knows about.

“This bulkhead was just in a terrible state of disrepair when we got here,” Russell said. “We’ve learned how to drive pile real well, I can tell you that.”

In addition, nearly every timber on the dock has been replaced.

Tied up at the end of the dock is one of the most important upgrades at Wood River plant.

A new pump barge gives Icicle Wood River about "25 feet in the river, which equates to three to four hours a day extra pumping time," says Icicle's Russel.
Credit KDLG

“This barge actually came from Dutch Harbor and used to be the fuel barge for Bristol Bay,” Russell said. “It makes a great platform for a fish pump, I gotta tell you.”

For shore-based processors in Bristol Bay, which has the eighth-highest tidal extremes in the world, every foot they can stretch further into the river channel makes a difference. 

“We gain about 25 feet in the river, which equates to three to four hours a day in extra pumping time,” Russell said about having the bigger barge. “If we get real creative we can actually tie up two tenders at a time, do ice and services for one while we’re pumping the other.”

For Russell, these improvements and the millions of dollars behind them say something about the company’s commitment to the long haul at Wood River, which is one of just two processors in Dillingham.

“We were committed three years ago, we’re committed today just as we’ve ever been.” Russell said. “Every year we’ve put in millions of dollars in upgrades and future planning and capacity expansion. I think that if anybody looks back at the last three or four years it really shows when you drive down here.”

Credit KDLG News

Standing on the dock in the river, the plant's 330 employees behind her are at task, or at rest, as chilled salmon in-the-round come in and fresh filets and frozen H&G goes out, 24/7. The Wood River at sunset is never a bad place to be, and not a bad spot for Russell to take as short a break as a plant manager will to reflect on the job at hand.

“Oh I love it. There’s a certain sense of participation in this fishery, and a sense of accomplishment when you complete the season. It’s real real tough some days, but at the end of the day it’s always worth it."

Reach the author at dave@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281.