Bristol Bay fisheries can benefit from industry cluster model
An interesting thing has been happening in the Bristol Bay region, and something that I have had the privilege to participate in first-hand over the past eight years or so. The east side of the Bristol Bay region (Naknek, King Salmon) is witnessing a flourishing of small seafood processors.
Since about 2007, there have been a proliferation of small mom-and-pop type operations forming over there, some of them owned by direct market fishermen, some owned by locals, and some of them set up to provide industry support, such as custom processing services. The anomaly of this seafood business cluster is that it is essentially absent from the west side of the Bay, such as Dillingham and Togiak. There was one small processor in Dillingham, but they no longer operate.
What makes the difference in encouraging development of fisheries businesses? Well, for starters, having the infrastructure to deal with moving fish around is very important - such as tender operators who can pick and weigh fish from the beach, road systems that allow trucks to haul the fish to various plants, and reliable air and barge service for shipping fish out. Additionally, the Bristol Bay Borough supports the industry by providing a world-class dock, complete with a fish grinder and low-cost ice available to fishermen and processors. The fish grinder in Naknek has enabled seafood processors to dispose of their waste legally, in a cost effective manner. However, the most valuable asset is the group of small processors themselves. These entrepreneurs help each other out when possible. When a small processor calls our small company (Naknek Family Fisheries) up and is out of vacuum packaging bags, we sell them (at cost) to them. Likewise, if somebody is shipping a container van south and has room for a few thousand pounds of fish, we might consolidate a freight order to save everybody a little bit of money.
This is not business as usual, but rather, business as it should be. Can we foster a collaborative, cooperative business environment out of the highly competitive Bristol Bay fishing industry? I hope so, because I see it happening on one side of the Bay already.
Has it made a difference? Absolutely! The ex-vessel price for sockeye salmon in Naknek was higher than it was in Dillingham last year. That is because some of these smaller processors have an emphasis, or rather, perhaps an obsession with quality iced seafood product. We can't compete on price alone, as our overhead costs are typically higher in comparison to the smaller volumes of fish being caught. So, we need to compete on quality of the product, rather than just price. So, here is a little shout out to those brave fish entrepreneurs in Naknek who are changing the future of the Bristol Bay salmon industry - one fish at a time:
Heidi Wolf, Diamond Lodge; Tony and Heather Woods, Alaska Wild Salmon and Seafood; Izetta Chambers, Betty Bonin, Everett Thompson, and Rhonda Wayner, Naknek Family Fisheries; Allen and MaryLou Aspelund, Al-Lou's; George Adams, Chuck Adams, Great Ruby Fish Company; Amanda Wlaysewski, Nakeen Homepack / Kvichak Fish Company; Mark Williams, direct marketer / shore-based processor.
Izetta Chambers is a MAP agent, and assistant professor working with the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program.