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Platinum fish plant won't open again this year

March 10th, 2017 | Lisa Demer, Alaska Dispatch News Print this article   Email this article  

BETHEL - A fishing group set up to benefit Western Alaska villages announced on Thursday that it won't open its fish processing plant in Platinum for the second year in a row.

The closure means commercial fishermen in the region can't fish. Some say the cash from fishing carried their families through summer months. Some had to cut back on basics like school clothes last year.

The salmon, herring and halibut plant was heavily subsidized every year since its opening in 2009, officials with Coastal Villages Seafood Fund said.

The plant never became self-sustainable and losses to support local fishing amounted to $6 million to $7 million a year, about half the cost of the plant, according to Coastal Villages.

That subsidy only benefited a portion of the 9,000 people in its region, Coastal Villages community benefits manager, Nathaniel Betz, said. About 600 fishermen sold their fish through the program, grossing $5,000 a year on average before fuel and other expenses, the organization said. Another 150 people worked in the plant.

"No other of our programs have had this marked imbalance in who gets to participate and who doesn't," said Angie Pinsonneault, Coastal Villages director of business development. "Everybody will have to continue to have equal opportunity in all of our other programs."

Coastal Villages is one of six groups in Western Alaska with a guaranteed share of lucrative high-seas fisheries for crab and pollock.

It is supposed to reinvest profits in the region, and says it has, spending more than $295 million from 2007 to 2015 in support of its 20 communities and the people who live in them. That is more than any of the other community development quota groups, according to data compiled by Coastal Villages.

But it also is the biggest region, in terms of communities and residents. Calculated on a per-person basis, its spending to benefit the region is near the bottom, its figures show.

Coastal Villages notes that its share of the high seas harvest is the lowest per capita, an allocation that it calls unfair and that it has been trying to change for years. The organization had hoped its support of local fishermen would win it a bigger share of the Bering Sea catch, but that didn't happen.

During that period of 2007 to 2015, it spent on average $32 million a year to benefit its communities, including what went to operate the fish plant. The subsidy portion of $6 million-plus now is largely being set aside, but eventually will go back into community programming that should reach an annual $20 million to $25 million, officials said.

This year, the organization is planning to spend $14.5 million in communities, including wages for mechanics and welders in villages plus staff and overhead at community service centers that function as community buildings and internet cafes.

Scholarships, internships, youth leadership programs, fuel subsidies, youth work programs and a program that subsidizes the cost of equipment such as four-wheelers and boats are still happening, Coastal Villages said.

A new program, Ciuneq, encourages teens to pursue college and vocational training. Elders age 65 and older also get a special benefit: Their choice of a down parka, a shipment of meats from Costco or two barrels of heating oil.

Without a buyer or processor, the state Department of Fish and Game did not open up the Goodnews Bay and Quinhagak districts to commercial fishing in 2016. So far one buyer has registered for 2017.

Coastal Villages would consider leasing its equipment to a qualified operator, according to Pinsonneault.

This story first appeared in Alaska Dispatch News and is reprinted here with permission.


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