It’s a sunny day in early June in Whittier, and the tiny port town on Prince William Sound is quiet. The Great Pacific Seafoods processing plant where about a hundred seasonal workers would normally be cleaning fish is silent and empty. The company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and closed several plants late last month, blaming a drop in roe prices and rising costs. Whittier is feeling the loss keenly.
“It’s affected the whole town,” said Bonnie Cox, bartender at the Anchor Inn, a restaurant, hotel and grocery store next door to the shuttered plant. “Out of the blue they came in and said they were shutting it down, pulling everybody out. Everybody’s scrambling to try and find jobs now, and there’s nothing to do, because we just don’t have the people coming in.”
Great Pacific’s bankruptcy announcement took a lot of people here by surprise. Whittier had been the heart of the Seattle-based company’s operations since the late ’80s, and in this town of about 200, where nearly everyone lives together in the 14-story Begich Towers condo building, the bodies and business that Great Pacific brought in were critical to the local economy.
Over at the Whittier Harbor Store, owner R.C. Collin and his daughter prepared to head to the dock to unload fish for a different supplier. He said there’s no question the Great Pacific departure will hurt his bottom line.
“The hundred plus people that worked at the plant used hotels and rooms and bought liquor and bought food, services, spent money every day,” Collin said. “It’s gonna be a big bite for us.”
Whittier mayor Daniel Blair said he worries about the shutdown driving more people out of this tiny, isolated town.
“I’m a little heartbroke,” Blair said. “It’s like having a great neighbor leave. You know, they were part of the fabric of Whittier. We’re a small community. I don’t want to lose anybody.”
Some will have no choice but to go. Great Pacific had regular contracts with many tender boats that call Whittier home base during summers of running fish and ice back and forth between the dock and fishing boats out. Robert Johnson is one of those tendermen.
“It’s a rough hardship,” Johnson said. “I mean, if I had known at Christmas, or earlier in the winter I could have went out and scored a really nice contract. But they kinda had us dangling on a string at the very last hope.”
Johnson said he did land another contract, with Icicle Seafoods. But it’s not ideal: It’s only for 50 days of work, and he won’t be delivering to Whittier. Instead, he’ll be bringing fish into Seward or Egegik Village, on Bristol Bay. Whittier is still home—he’s lived here 14 years, and his wife works for the one-lane tunnel that allows cars and trains to enter town—but until this contract is up, he won’t be coming back here unless he needs something out of his storage container. But, he said, “hopefully it’ll keep the boat in my name, and the house.”
Down at the dock, the Collins are using a wide tube to suck chum salmon out of the holding tank of a tender boat working for Copper River Seafoods. Matthew Mendoza works on the boat, and said he knows of three other tender crews who lost contracts when Great Pacific shut down.
“They already had their boat ready and everything,” Mendoza said. “They were just waiting for the first opener, and they got a call. It kinda makes you think like, man, this could happen to anyone.”
People here know fishing is an industry of ups and downs. Even as the bankruptcy court oversees liquidation of Great Pacific’s assets—including three condos in the towers and the processing plant—residents hope another company will swoop in, and things will pick up again. But Mendoza said right now, everyone’s feeling the pain.
“In one way or another every person here in towns like these rely on the fishing, on every company,” Mendoza said.