Fire reduces new Bristol Bay floating fish processor’s capacity

a fish processor
The Hannah, Northline Seafoods’ floating processor, anchors by Clarks Point in the Nushagak District. (Casey Chandler/KDLG)

An electrical fire has damaged one of three spiral freezers aboard Northline Seafoods’ new floating fish processor Hannah, which is anchored in Bristol Bay’s Nushagak district this salmon season.

The vessel is currently operating at a reduced capacity after Sunday’s blaze, and other processors are taking on some of Northline’s fleet.

During a recent visit to the Hannah, a steady stream of frozen, whole fish emerged from a large spiral freezer. Each fish landing on a conveyor belt was whisked away to the next stage in the production line.

These frozen fish were some of the first sockeye salmon deliveries of the season from Bristol Bay fishing vessels to the Hannah, Northline’s brand-new floating freezer barge in the region.

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From there they made their way to grading belts, where they were sorted by size and then placed into cold storage for processing later in the year.

“So it goes through a spiral freezer, where it goes in the bottom, exits out the top, gets graded, and that goes into a box,” said Northline CEO Ben Blakey.

Blakey said it just takes a few hours for the spiral freezers to bring the fish down to their desired core temperatures. The idea is that freezing fish at these ultra-low temperatures — and freezing quickly — makes a big difference in maintaining quality.

“Our freezers operate at about negative 60 degrees Fahrenheit,” Blakey said. “So they freeze the fish very quickly, and very cold.”

But the electrical fire under one of the Hannah’s freezers threw a wrench in that plan. According to Northline, the vessel’s team of marine firefighters were the first to respond to the incident and extinguish the fire. No one was injured.

A spokesperson for Northline told KDLG that freezer technicians and electricians are currently repairing the system.

processed fish
Workers load fish into a spiral freezer aboard Northline’s processor vessel the Hannah on Saturday, June 30, 2024, a day before an electrical fire. (Casey Chandler/KDLG)

Brendan Flynn, who captains the F/V Briney and fishes for Northline, said the company quickly alerted their fleet of the incident.

“I think most of us, or all of us, received calls directly from Ben Blakey as to what was going on and what they were trying to do going forward. So there is, I think, a really good transparency,” he said.

Flynn said that in a message to the company’s fleet sent shortly after the fire, Blakey recommended that boats consider switching to other processors if they had that option available.

“Those who had ready markets, a certain number of folks, have already transitioned over,” said Flynn.

Northline confirmed that around 100 boats fished for the company before the fire, and that around half are now with other processors.

Flynn said he decided to stay.

“I’ve been fishing here for twenty-some years and been in the fishing industry my whole life. This company, and the way they’re structuring their business models, is the best chance for real positive change — both for compensation for the fisherman and producing a better quality product — that I think I’ve ever seen,” he said. “So we’re crossing our fingers and hoping for the best here.”

A spokesperson for Northline confirmed that all the boats that left have done so voluntarily, and that the Hannah has enough capacity for fish from the vessels that are staying.

Norm Van Vactor has been a general manager for Peter Pan Seafoods and for Leader Creek, and an advisor for Silver Bay Seafoods. He retired last year. He said it’s tough to see a setback for a newcomer, particularly after a hard year for the fishery — and he can relate.

“It’s just angst, and a real sense of sympathy. Because when something like this happens, you’ve got fishermen who are dependent upon our company to buy their fish to process their fish and to pay for them,” Van Vactor said.

Northline confirmed that five other processors in the Bristol Bay region will take on some of the company’s fleet to accommodate for their reduced freezer capacity. Those processors include OBI, Silver Bay, Peter Pan, Leader Creek, and Red Salmon. None of those processors commented before this story aired.

Northline also confirmed that other processors took fish that had already been delivered by Northline’s fleet to tender boats. OBI confirmed that it took one of those tender loads.

“I think it’s great to see the industry collectively respond and help a competitor when they can. Because you know full well that it might be the Hannah today, but it could be you tomorrow,” Van Vactor said.

The timing isn’t ideal — Bristol Bay’s sockeye run typically peaks within the next week. That means salmon deliveries to the freezer barge would ideally be starting to pick up. But Van Vactor said it might not be the worst case scenario.

He was at Peter Pan almost 20 years ago when a fire impacted capacity at the Dillingham plant. He said that fire was at the peak of the season. So while other processors pitched in, there wasn’t much they could do.

“I guess if there’s a silver lining in all of this, it is at the front end of the season. It did happen at a point in time when there was a significant amount of capacity available,” said Van Vactor.

While this is certainly a setback for Northline Seafoods this season, he said, processors have weathered incidents like this before.

In a statement, Northline’s Blakey said the company appreciated the support from its fleet and was working through repairs in the meantime.

Northline told KDLG that the Hannah is currently operating at about a third of its usual production capacity. The company said Wednesday that it hoped to improve capacity over the next 24 hours, and will continue to operate throughout the season.

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