Broken ice machine spells trouble for two fishing villages

A broken ice machine has stalled commercial fishing for two villages on the Lower Yukon River. The owner won’t fix the machine. The person who usually fixes the machine won’t. Fishermen have to travel 90 miles and back to get ice, and they’re calling for help. Meanwhile, the fish, and the opportunity for income, are swimming by.

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(Photo courtesy of Nick P. Andrew Jr.)
(Photo courtesy of Nick P. Andrew Jr.)

Fishermen in Marshall and Russian Mission have missed three commercial openings since the machine’s compressor broke last week. They’re missing out on yet another opening Thursday and two more if the problem isn’t fixed by this weekend. And it most likely won’t be, because this problem is an expensive one: $15,000.

Nick Andrew Jr. is a commercial fisherman in Marshall.

“Our way of life out here is in jeopardy, due to a simple part for an ice machine,” Andrew said.

There’re 48 commercial fishermen in his village and Russian Mission. All of them are small skiff operations, and all of them rely on Marshall’s now defunct ice machine.

The machine holds 8 thousand pounds of ice. During an opening, fishermen use about half that per day. Marshall’s village corporation, Maserculiq owns the machine….but is refusing to fix it— a situation, Andrew says, that’s frustrating villagers.

“Basically, you know, this has angered a lot of us fisherman and shareholders,” Andrew said. “One, it’s their property. Two, they’re profiting off the fishermen.”

Profits come from buying items at the corporation’s store.

Andrew says the issue speaks to an ongoing disconnect between the shareholders and their corporation. Four of its five board members do not live in Marshall, and the CEO lives in Wyoming. CEO Russell Weller Junior replied to KYUK’s phone call with a “no comment.” Board members have not responded to emails.

In past years, the ice machine has been maintained by Kwikpak Fisheries, downriver in Emmonak. It’s the processor that buys the fish. The machine breaks several times per year, and Kwikpak’s always fixed it for free. Until now.

Manager Jack Schultheis said they’ve already fixed the machine five times this year. And it’s time the owners took responsibility.

“I mean, the whole community basically fishes, but they won’t support their own fishermen,” Schultheis said. “And we just feel it’s something the village corporation should address and not us.”

The fishermen in Marshall and Russian Mission offered to pay for the repair— on credit— with Kwikpak. Schultheis wouldn’t take the financial risk.

“Some of them haven’t even fished this year. And if it’s all split equally then everybody would have to fish. So what if a portion of them doesn’t fish?”

A new ice machine would cost about $100,000.

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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