Commercial silver fishing could return to the Lower Kuskokwim this summer

Silver salmon fills the bottom of a boat during a subsistence opening in August 2016 near Bethel. A new fish processor in Bethel may allow for commercial openings during the 2017 silver salmon run. (Photo: Katie Basile / KYUK)

Commercial fishing could be returning to the Lower Kuskokwim this summer. Washington state fish buyer Pacific Harvest Seafood is working to anchor a fish processing vessel along the Bethel seawall from late July through August to buy silver salmon from Quinhagak to Bethel.

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“[They] will be shipped across the United States to distributors that would take this product to restaurants and retailers,” Pacific Harvest Seafood President Jim Gonzalez said. At least one tender would run down to Quinhagak to buy fish. The silvers will be iced and flown to market.

When Coastal Villages Region Fund closed its Platinum processor last year, fishermen in the Lower Kuskokwim villages were left without a buyer. Pacific Harvest plans to pay commercial fishermen cash per pound of silver salmon.

“We will [pay] at least as high as the previous processor here, if not higher,” Gonzalez said.

CVRF, the previous processor, paid 50 cents per pound. Although Pacific Harvest would provide work for fishermen, the processing vessel, the F.V. Akutan, is unlikely to bring local jobs.

“We’re not sure since that boat will actually be coming from Bristol Bay,” Gonzalez said, “and will already have a crew on board that will have already been processing for approximately 30 days.”

Gonzalez worked in the Bethel area before as a Sales Manager for another salmon buyer in the 1990’s. He knows working in the remote region will cost his company millions of dollars, but said he feels connected to the area and the people who live here.

“We understand the pain, I think, that a lot of people have gone through by not having a commercial processor in town, and it’s not just simply a profit motive for our company to be here,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez delivered his news to the Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group last week. At the meeting Aaron Poetter, a fish biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said that the state doesn’t forecast the silver salmon run but expects high enough numbers returning this summer to support commercial openings.

“We’re certainly interested in working with any prospective processors for this area,” Poetter said. “We’ll always base our commercial opportunity based on our assessment of what recent run performance has looked like, where we’re at with the subsistence fishery, just other in-season information.”

Fishermen would need a limited entry permit to participate in the commercial harvest.

Working Group member Greg Hoffman Jr. is a commercial fisherman in Bethel. He hopes that the processor comes through and opens a local commercial fishery.

“I’ve been talking to my friends and family, and they’re looking forward to going out commercial fishing,” Hoffman said.

Other working group members asked Pacific Harvest to expand its buying upriver to Tuluksak. Gonzalez said that the company is still developing its plans and will consider the option. The Working Group also invited Gonzalez to apply for the empty processor’s seat on the Working Group to keep the body informed of its plans.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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