By Naomi Klouda
Ocean Beauty Seafoods, a major salmon buyer on the Kenai Peninsula both on the Homer Spit and at Nikiski, has ceased all its Cook Inlet operations.
Ocean Beauty sent the news out in letters to commercial fishermen telling them of the transition, said Vice President Tom Sunderland. Pacific Star will now handle all of the buying transactions.
Ocean Beauty Seafoods LLC, a pioneer in the Northwest and Alaska seafood industry, ranks among the largest and most successful seafood companies in the Pacific Northwest. It began as a Seattle seafood business in 1910 and has operated in Alaska nearly that long, Sunderland said. Ocean Beauty will continue its operations on Kodiak Island and Cordova, as well as its canneries at Naknek, Kodiak, Alitak, Cordova, Excursion Inlet and Petersburg.
“The economics of processing hasn’t been as positive (on Cook Inlet) as in other areas of the state,” Sunderland said. “We will employ more people statewide this year than last year. But salmon processing economics for us on the Kenai haven’t been very good. The canneries that are left are good business.”
A salmon processing plant at Nikiski owned by Ocean Beauty for now isn’t going to be sold.
“We could sell it or re-open it at some point, but right now it is sitting dark,” he said.
The move means Pacific Star is purchasing the fish buying stations. In communications with commercial fishermen, Sunderland said the company wants to emphasize that there shouldn’t be any changes in their routines. The fishing fleet can go to the same buying stations and the same end markets for the fish it will be purchasing.
“It’s just that we won’t be the buyer for them. There’s no loss of markets, no loss of customers. We have all the same customers for (buying) the fish. We haven’t been processing anyway, so it makes more sense to let them (Pacific Star) handle that too,” Sunderland said.
Some of the fishermen have expressed concern. Commercial fisherman Tom Patterson, who operates F/V Macaw, said Ocean Beauty’s pullout just when salmon runs are rebounding doesn’t make sense.
“We’ve just had the best harvest in 20 years, and now there’s predictions that upper Cook Inlet sockeye salmon runs are going to be even better this season,” said Patterson, who has fished on the Macaw since 1985. “Every year, we’ve said ‘maybe next year, maybe next year … ’ just waiting for harvest levels. And then we get a better than average return and thought Ocean Beauty would open processing again.”
Ray Welsh, the owner of Pacific Alaska Fisheries on the Homer Spit, said there likely are many economic pressures that work against the salmon market. He began commercial fishing nearly 60 years ago in Cook Inlet, and remembers when the many canneries lined docks at Seldovia, Halibut Cove and Homer.
“The economics just isn’t there. Kodiak has the intercept fishery so it’s economically profitable for Ocean Beauty to stay there,” he said. But for several years, salmon markets have been poor. “They’ve taken some losses by being here in Cook Inlet. That we don’t have canneries either anymore is another sign of the economics.”
Canneries are “old dinosaur enterprises” in a time when value added fish is preferred, he said. Today, all of the peninsula’s fish is processed or filleted as a value added product. Ocean Beauty will still be involved with getting the fish to market.