Copper River Seafoods no longer buying Cook Inlet salmon amid declining harvests

A tote full of sockeye salmon
Sockeye salmon. (Courtesy of Redoubt Reporter)

Another seafood processor is moving out of Kenai this salmon season. Copper River Seafoods is ending its run in the old Snug Harbor Seafood plant, leaving one major salmon processor in the area but promising the addition of a new company soon.

Processors like Copper River buy catch from commercial fishermen and bring that catch to market. As commercial fishermen have dealt with declining salmon runs and management changes, processors from Kenai to Homer have left, too, leaving fishermen with fewer options.

In a letter, Copper River CEO Scott Blake said those factors were to blame for the company ending its salmon buying on the Kenai Peninsula, as well as increasing production costs.

The letter didn’t call out any particular management changes and a spokesperson for Copper River Seafoods could not be reached before airtime.

The largest recent change to the commercial fishing landscape in the region is the impending closure of a large swath of Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishermen. That change was approved by a federal council in late 2020 and goes into effect for the first time this summer, short of a last-minute legal holdup.

Opponents of the decision warned that closing the fishery would take out local processors, too. That part of Upper Cook Inlet makes up just under half of the revenue from that area.

But even before the council’s decision, processors have been pulling out of the inlet, said Paul Dale, of Nikiski. His processing operation, Snug Harbor Seafoods, sold to Copper River in 2019.

“Processing has been changing in the Cook Inlet area, Kenai area for probably an easy 20 years,” Dale said.

The erosion of processors has been steady, Dale said, as fishing time and opportunities have decreased. In the last decade, especially, the size and value of Cook Inlet salmon harvests have dropped, bringing close to 10 processors down to just a few.

Dale said Copper River has scaled back since it’s been running the Kalifornsky Beach Road plant in the last three years.

“And while they did not achieve the success that they hoped they would in Cook Inlet, that does not necessarily mean that different companies aren’t experiencing success in Cook Inlet, or might be able to achieve success in Cook Inlet,” Dale said.

Audrey Salmon, office manager for the local drift association, UCIDA, said Copper River stopped buying fish from Kasilof fishermen last year. After that, many fishermen took their business to Pacific Star, which today is the only Kenai-based processing plant for the drift fleet. OBI Seafoods in Homer also buys from fishermen in Kasilof and Ninilchik.

Others have started marketing their catch themselves. Salmon said those fishermen – called “catcher processors” – have become more popular in Cook Inlet as more processors have left.

Copper River said in its letter it will be replaced by a new processor.

That company, Rogue Wave, has no digital footprint. The letter from Copper River said the company will make an announcement soon about what its presence in the area will look like. It also said the buyers will buy from Kenai, Kasilof and Ninilchik.

Copper River, meanwhile, said it will continue to work on groundfish programs in Homer, Whittier and Cordova.

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