For decades, many of the processors in Bristol Bay have been large companies, with offices in Washington and parent companies in foreign countries. But two small communities are developing locally-owned processing plants.
Bristol Bay’s fishing communities have long been dependent on the companies that turn raw fish into a sell-able product and get it shipped out of the bay. The communities of Port Heiden and Levelock want to take on that role themselves and – hopefully – keep more of the decisions, and the benefits, local.
“We wanted to start a locally tribally owned processing plant so that we could create a longer season for our fishermen, also to have our fishermen fish closer to home so they don’t have to go all the way up to Ugashik to fish, and to provide them with a higher price for their fish because we’ll be doing direct marketing and have a higher quality product,” she said. “That will mean more jobs and more pay for the fishermen.”
Right now, Port Heiden is waiting on some freezer equipment ordered from Anchorage. Once it arrives, and the fish are hitting, they’ll buy up to 10,000 pounds per day – hopefully from local fishermen. There are about half a dozen Bristol Bay fishery permit holders living there.
Meshik will start off by selling fish primarily in-state.
“So selling to the school districts, selling to Anchorage markets, and selling to local stores first,” she said.
Once it gets going, Christensen says the processing center wants to buy during a longer season than typical processors, starting with kings, and staying open through to silvers.
Eventually, they also want to expand and purchase a Japanese freezer system.
“We are working on getting that technology but because it’s very expensive we are getting the funding together to be able to purchase it,” she said. “The one small freezer system that we want to purchase is over a million dollars.”
To the northeast, Levelock Packing is probably a year out from operations. Village Council President Alexander Tallekpalek said they’re waiting on final approval for a $2 million dollar infrastructure grant from Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. In the meantime, they’ve been building the plant piece by piece using community block grants for the past five years, and planning it for more than two decades.
“Right now we have about $1.8 million into the project,” Tallekpalek said. “Every year we purchase materials and equipment and build the processing plant with local hire for the past five years. And all the projects were small projects, but at the end of the day, we’re going to have a fully equipped processing plant.”
Last winter, the community went to the state Board of Fisheries, and asked for more commercial fishing opportunity on the Alagnak River. After BBEDC agreed to help fund management for the project, the board agreed to create a new plan there, about eight miles from the village.
Levelock Packing wants to buy fish from the five local permit holders, as well as others from the region who want to fish the new area. Tallekpalek said he’s heard interest from set-netters from Dillingham, Iliamana Lake communities and elsewhere the Naknek-Kvichak District who are interested in fishing the new section.
Like Port Heiden, the plant wants to provide a market during the shoulder seasons.
“We plan to fish before the regular commercial sockeye season, and then we plan to do some fall fishing after the commercial sockeye season,” he said. “So we plan to harvest more than just regular sockeye. We’d like to do silvers and chums and that’ll keep our fish plant open longer.”
The longer season would be good for fishermen, and for employees. Tallekpalek said the plant will employ about 30 people, and he’s hoping most will come from the Bristol Bay region. Like most processors, the village is also working on housing for the employees.
Despite plans for a building and a fishery, Levelock doesn’t know where it’ll sell its fish. Tallekpalek said a roundtable is planned this fall to work on marketing plans and figure out what sort of product the plant will produce – whether frozen fillets or otherwise.
For both communities, the plants are part of a larger effort to develop more robust local communities.
“Right now, our community is about 70-some people, and the majority of us adults here, we all have jobs with the fish plant, with our barge, and with the high tunnel and some of the small grant projects that we’ve got here,” Tallekpalek said. “So we’re all getting a lot of work and a lot of excitement with the fish processing plant.”