For the first time in five years, commercial salmon fishing is returning to Kuskokwim Bay. A new buyer hopes to start purchasing salmon from fishermen before the end of the month.
The buyer is E&E Foods, located in Washington state. Company COO Ken Ng says that E&E may be new to Kuskokwim Bay, but it’s already looking toward an extended future.
“We hope that it is so successful that we will be back every year for a long time,” Ng said.
E&E been able to do that already in other areas of Alaska.
“Currently we have operations in Kenai, Yakutat, Bristol Bay, and Kotzebue,” Ng said.
Ng says that there are two reasons for expanding to Kuskokwim Bay.
“We do see it as an opportunity to expand our buying area geographically," Ng said, "but also maybe help the local community to re-establish the commercial salmon fisheries in that area.”
That commercial fishery shut down in 2016 when Coastal Villages Region Fund mothballed its processing operations, saying that it was losing about $6 million a year. Suddenly, local fishermen and workers saw a substantial portion of their annual income disappear. Many could not afford their boat motor payments; some lost water and sewer service. Shopping trips to Anchorage for school clothes were no longer an option. Other salmon buyers tried to enter the area in the years since, but none have been successful until now.
E&E has a tentative agreement with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to revive the commercial fishery with its first commercial opener on Monday, June 29 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Ng is expecting 70 to 80 commercial fishermen to participate in the season's fishery.
Fishermen will be limited to 6-inch or less mesh. E&E’s primary targets are sockeye and coho salmon, but it will also buy kings and chum. It has yet to set a price, but the company says that it will pay competitively. The price will depend on the salmon world market.
"Compared to previous years, the pricing has been down," Ng said. "In some cases, because of the COVID-19 situation, there just has been a lot less demand.”
E&E has contracted with former partners for the venture. The processor ship, called the Clipper Epic, will be anchored in Goodnews Bay. Meanwhile, a tender will travel to and from Quinhagak. Ng says that both vessels are following COVID-related state health precautions. All workers are tested for coronavirus and isolated for two weeks before boarding the ships, and E&E is committed to a “no-contact” fishery.
“Meaning that the fishermen cannot board any of our vessels, nor can we board their vessels. So we will just transfer the fish from the fishing boat to the tender or to the processors,” Ng said.
Also, workers will not go ashore, and will instead be resupplied through a tender.
Ng says that the processor can handle up to 70,000 pounds of fish per day, and would like to process that much salmon each opener until the coho season ends in August. All the salmon will be frozen aboard the processor and shipped to Seattle.