FISH FACTOR: ASMI gives world buyers a taste of life in Dutch Harbor
The nation’s top fishing port welcomed seven European seafood buyers in late January — all women — and showed off its massive seafood industry during peak operations at Dutch Harbor.
The women, whose companies import more than $60 million in U.S. seafood, hailed from France, Germany, Lithuania, Portugal, Spain, and the U.K., said Hannah Lindoff, international program coordinator for the trip host Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
“They are interested in Alaska pollock, cod, surimi, octopus, salmon, roe, black cod and king crab,” she explained.
“The whole point was to show off Alaska and build relationships between these buyers and the seafood industry,” echoed Alice Ottoson-McKeen, the assistant program coordinator who made the trek to Dutch Harbor with the group.
“ASMI often does trade missions, but this trip was really special because it was all women buyers and they could talk to one another about their shared experiences,” she said, adding that the trip was inspired by an inaugural women in seafood leadership summit last summer by Intrafish Media.
The women spent four days in Dutch (including getting weathered in) at the busiest time of year when Alaska pollock, cod, crab and flatfish seasons are in full swing.
“They didn’t realize how far away and remote it is. They were in awe of the landscape with no trees and all of the mountains and islands surrounding you,” Ottoson-McKeen said. “It’s obviously unlike anywhere else in the world.”
The group experienced fish processing action on a massive scale at the Unisea and Westward processing plants, which handle much of the nearly 800 million pounds of seafood that crosses the docks each year.
“They were really impressed with the size and scope of the operations and the degree of automation,” said Mayor Frank Kelty who also showed off Dutch Harbor’s cold storages, warehouses, container ships from around the world and the small town itself.
“It was a real eye opener for them to see our world class facilities and the 24/7 activity in a bustling town of 4,500 people. They were a little amazed and frustrated with our spotty internet and cell phone connectivity. Welcome to our world!” Kelty added with a laugh.
A highlight was time spent aboard fishing boats, including one bigger than 300 feet that catches and processes the fish at sea.
“There was so much pride from the captains and crews in their jobs and their boats, and that was something the women were really impressed with. They could see that the people working in this industry really love it,” said Ottoson-McKeen.
“Even getting stuck for an extra day was nice because we were able to meet up and have dinner with some of the crew we’d met, and talk in a more informal setting. That really added to the depth of understanding of our seafood industry.”
Ultimately, the goal of the trip was to enlighten the buyers about Alaska seafood, and to entice them to buy more or try new products.
“A lot of them already are buying Alaska seafood, but they saw firsthand how our industry cares about quality and sustainability and the environment,” she added.
“They all are knowledgeable buyers, but seeing it at the source means so much more,” said Pat Shanahan, program director for the trade group Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers, who acted as a tour guide. “They got to see what they’ve been hearing about for years. Now they will be able to connect the story to the Alaska brand.”
“We definitely felt like we created some wonderful Alaska seafood ambassadors,” added ASMI’s Ottoson-McKeen.
Processors pay for doctors at the Bay
During the salmon season at Bristol Bay, the number of people in the borough, which includes Naknek, South Naknek and King Salmon, surges from around 900 to 10,000 or more.
That brings with it the need for more medical care. Many processors traditionally brought in their own doctors or relied on telemedicine programs. But that changed two years ago.
“We approached the idea of bringing in an emergency room trained doctor and having him here locally and it’s gone very well,” said Mary Swain, executive director at Camai Community Health Center in Naknek, which staffs physician assistants and nurse practitioners.
It was a spike in pricey medevacs, she said, that prompted the idea of having a doctor available from mid-June through the end of July. Medivacs can cost a company up to $40,000 to bring badly hurt or sick patients from the remote region to Anchorage.
Now seven of Bristol Bay’s dozen processors each chip in $10,000 to bring in a doctor, including Ocean Beauty, Trident, Alaska General Seafoods, Leader Creek Fisheries, Alaska Marine Lines, Icicle and Peter Pan.
The fishermen-funded/operated Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association and the health center also contribute the same amount.
“It pays for the housing, trip up here and the doctor’s time,” Swain said.
A new satellite clinic also is located at Leader Creek “right in the processors’ backyard” for non-emergency cases, Swain said. The Camai Center and the clinic treated a combined 1,600 patients last year.
Swain said getting the processing companies on board was an easy sell.
“In fact, one of the processors gave extra money so we could get x-ray equipment at the clinic, and we are looking to potentially use that to bring in ultrasound technology next year,” she said.
“Having a doctor in Naknek saves on medevac incidents and it also gets people back to work more quickly,” said Ron Nebert, plant manager for Ocean Beauty Seafoods. “There are also occasional life-threatening scenarios that a doctor is more qualified to handle.”
For some, the clinic is the only place where they have ever had any kind of health care.
“The people deserve it,” Swain said. “We saw a bunch of people last year who had never seen a doctor of any kind even for basic medical care. But we see that more and more as we bring other cultures and nationalities into Naknek to process salmon.”
The clinic has ‘round the clock translation services available for more than 200 languages through Language Select to accommodate the mix of people who work in the Bay’s processing plants each year.
Swain said they use professional recruiters to make sure the doctors are aware of the region’s remoteness, but it is still a surprise.
“They think they have seen rural when they’ve been 200 miles from a hospital,” Swain said. “When they come out here and realize that we are so remote and isolated that you must depend on yourself, your skills, your knowledge, and that’s about all. The first doctor was very shocked. It’s a learning curve for all of them. But I think we’ve done a better job at vetting so people really understand what they are getting into.”
This year’s doctor hails from Montana, Swain said.
“He has worked with Indian health and on reservations,” she added. “He’s written a paramedic program for the community where he lives, and is very skilled in both what we see out here and emergencies in rural areas where he is the only person available. We are very lucky.”
Crab and groundfish dominate winter fisheries and hundreds of boats are out on the waters of both the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea.
In Southeast, fishing for rockfish could remain open through late March in some regions, and diving for sea cucumbers and geoduck clams continues throughout the Panhandle.
Openers for golden king crab and Tanners will opened concurrently on Feb. 10. The harvest limit for golden kings is 70,000 pounds; a guideline for Tanners will be determined after a few days of fishing. Last year the catch came in at about 975,000 pounds, or 400,000 crabs.
Southeast’s winter troll fishery for Chinook salmon will close on March 15 to help conserve dwindling stocks. That fishery usually stays open through April.
Fishing for black rockfish is ongoing around Kodiak, Chignik and the Southern district of the Alaska Peninsula.
There’s lots of action in the Gulf and Bering Sea for cod, flounders, pollock and other whitefish.
Trawl fisheries opened on Jan. 20, but Gulf boats tied up for eight days before settling on an 11-cent pollock price, just a penny or so below the price in the Bering Sea.
The season is winding down for crabbers targeting snow crab and Tanners in the Bering Sea.
The year’s first opener for red king crab will kick off at Norton Sound in early March with a small 50,000-pound harvest. A bigger opener will occur in the summer and the combined catch will total 319,000 pounds, down slightly from last year.
For fish meetings, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is convening through February 12 in Seattle.
The state Board of Fisheries will wrap up its meeting cycle March 6-9 in Anchorage with a focus on statewide Dungeness crab, shrimp and miscellaneous shellfish.
The board also has a call out for proposals for its next cycle that targets fisheries at Bristol Bay, the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim, Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands. The proposal deadline is April 10.
The Pacific halibut fishery will open on March 24 and run through Nov. 7. The year’s first herring fishery also will get underway when the fish arrive at Sitka Sound next month. The harvest is set at 11,128 tons, down from 14,649 tons in 2017.