New processor preps for summer operations in Naknek

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is forecasting strong sockeye salmon returns to Bristol Bay this summer, and Copper River Seafoods is getting ready to open a processing plant in Naknek and buy fish from the Naknek-Kvichak District, where 18 million sockeye are expected to be available for harvest.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is forecasting a return of 28.8 million sockeye to the district, with 18 million available for harvest. Copper River Seafoods will be on hand to help purchase and process those fish.

Copper River bought the old extreme seafoods plant in Naknek, and Vojta Novak, the company’s Bristol Bay manager, said they have been getting ready to open for the past two months.

Novak said they’ll have five tenders in the bay, including one for setnetters.

“This year we decided to buy fish only in Naknek and Kvichak,” Novak said. “We’ll have a couple tenders here in the bay and a couple tenders by the line.”

Although the plant is new to Naknek, Novak said the company is familiar with the region from its operations in Togiak. He said that entering Naknek is challenging, because it’s competitive, and one of the biggest sockeye salmon fisheries in Alaska. But in some ways, it’s easier to operate there than in Togiak.

“You have everything pretty much here, if you need any help, if you need any welders, if you need any materials, you can buy here. When I was in Togiak, I cannot buy anything,” he said.

Novak said about 15-20 people are working at the plant now to get it ready, mostly construction guys. When the plant is operational, it’ll have about 70 employees, he said.

Last week, Novak was waiting for equipment to come in on the barge, including processing lines, pipes and headers and gutters. The plant was operational when Copper River purchased it, but Novak said the company wanted to make it more efficient and improve capacity.

“You don’t have too much time,” Novak said. “The tide is critical here. You have four or five hours in the high tide and other tide, you have three or four hours to pump all the fish, and if you pump it into totes, you have to drive them up the hill. It’s not efficiency. We want to do more than one million or a couple million pounds here.”

Once the plant gets going, Novak said they’ll focus on sockeyes, although they’ll buy all species and plan to try staying open for fall fish, mainly chums and cohos.

Novak said the company is shooting for a June 15 opening this summer. All of the fish purchased and processed in Naknek will be sold under the Copper River Seafoods brand.

The plant will focus on headed and gutted fish, and fishermen will be required to ice and bleed fish, Novak said.

Fresh fish will be flown to Anchorage to be reprocessed, while frozen fish will go to Seattle on a barge at the end of the season.

Novak said he wants to have about 30 drifters delivering to the plant, and it looks like they’ll hit that target.

“We have a lot of good local fishermans planning to fish for us,” Novak said.

Novak can’t say yet what prices will be, but he did said that they want to be a strong player in the bay.

“We are competitive, we want to stay here for long-term,” Novak said.