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Work, Fish, Hope: A Look Into Coastal Villages Region Fund

In the village of Quinhagak, a plan to sell salmon to the Seattle-based Northwest Seafood Exchange has fallen through after the Coastal Villages Region Fund refused the Quinhagak village corporation manager access to processing equipment. The fishermen in Quinhagak join others in the region in having commercial fishing opportunities but nowhere to sell their fish. This move by CVRF highlights a string of what many are calling poor management choices,and others are calling tactics by executives to line their own pockets rather than serve their communities. This is the first of three reports based on a KYUK investigation of the issue.

Work, Fish, Hope. That’s the motto of Coastal Villages Region Fund. But lately the village of Quinhagak hasn’t been doing much working or fishing. Since last week, they've been doing a little less hoping as well.

“They’re already at a poverty level, and they were getting desperate because there was no fish buyer, and now they’re losing… they’re screwed," Jason Lake said. Lake is a broker working with the Northwest Seafood Exchange. Lake heard that CVRF had closed its 40 million dollar processing plant in Platinum and saw it as a salmon buying opportunity.  Lake told the owner of Northwest Seafood Exchange, Bob Lynx, about the deal.

“I called Bob and was like, 'Hey Bob, you interested?' And he was like, 'Heck yeah! Let’s go!'” Lake said. 

Quinhagak is on the Kanektok river, just up the Bearing Sea coast from Platinum. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game says they would open a commercial salmon fishery in the area if there was a processor for the fish, but there isn't one. 

The shut-down plant's owner, CVRF, is a 19-year-old firm granted a share of offshore crab and groundfish under the federal Community Development Quota (CDQ) program. The CDQ program is based on the idea that income generated from the sale of the seafood harvest be used to help economies along the coastal regions of Alaska.

CVRF CEO Morgan Crow says their onshore plant in Quinhagak was never profitable.

Fisherman in Platinum before plant closure.

“I think that the conditions to run it would be that it would have to come very, very close to sustaining itself," Crow said. 

Crow says that on the whole, the plant and the fishery operation were not businesses, but programs—meaning that they did not generate income for CVRF.

Jason Lake says he was willing to offer over two times what Coastal Village Region Fund paid for salmon. He says the fish are easily worth that much. Before a deal could be struck, Lake ran into big problems.

“We flew down there yesterday, and we talked to a handful of fisherman," said Crow, who just got back from Quinhagak.

“I think they were interested in using some of our equipment, but in the end, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into," Crow said. 

Not only do the fishermen have no place to process the fish they catch, but Crow and Plant Manager Nick Souza have denied them access to equipment in Quinhagak for icing and handling the fish.

“We were shut down, which in return shut Quinhagak down for the year and all the other villages that participated in the commercial fishing in that area," Lake said. 

The closure of the commercial fisheries program by CVRF was a surprise to many residents in the region, who told Alaska Dispatch News earlier this year that CVRF didn’t warn them about the closure. 

Crow says unstable supply, state and federal fishing regulations, and low numbers of fish are among the reasons the Quinhagak plant had problems, but others believe it was because the operation was poorly run.  Platinum Mayor Mark Moyle says he's seen plenty of mismanagement.

“That’s what you can quote me on: it looks like they have foolishly spent money here in Platinum," Moyle said.

Moyle says he has seen the company spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in places it didn’t have to. He says the company routinely barged damaged boats and equipment to Washington instead of doing repairs in house. He claims that this practice cost thousands in shipping alone, not to mention the work time lost to transit each time a piece of equipment wasn't functional.

Moyle's complaints echo what several other sources have already told KYUK.  Another instance that he says didn’t make financial sense is recounted below. 

Beached CVRF ship

“2014, they had a barge and they had a boat that was 120 feet long, and they needed to move them up on to the beach, and they contracted an outfit to come out here and do that. And they spent 750,000 dollars to move those two pieces of equipment up on to the beach," Moyle said. 

Crow responded Moyle's account saying, “I’m running this operation. I’m running it my way, and I’m gonna continue to do that, and I support Nick Souza absolutely.”

Plant Manager Nick Souza would have been directly in charge of these decisions.

“I don’t think some of the things you're tossin' up are anywhere near the truth. Every time you try to produce a product in Western Alaska it’s very expensive," Crow said. 

More than just the way the plant was run, Moyle points to the plant itself as a poor management choice. He says it was more than the area could support. That it was a Cadillac when the area needed a pick-up truck, and now it sits unused. Crow says he doesn’t disagree with the idea that the plant was too much for the area.

“I didn’t understand, or I never projected, increased subsistence pressure on local fish, especially king salmon. I’ve never seen swarms of boats that resemble the old commercial fleets," Crow said.

Crow says the last couple years of sporadic fishing openers have driven people to overuse the resource and that this makes the fisheries program impossible. Though this does not explain ocean going fishing programs that have been shut down as well. 

This story is the first of a three part series on CVRF.

Correction: Chum Salmon has been changed to "Salmon." CVRF is 19 years old.