Togiak’s herring buyer says floating processor will have “zero impact” on community

The Gordon Jensen dockside in Dutch Harbor. (Photo courtesy of Icicle Seafoods)

Icicle Seafoods is the sole processor buying Togiak herring this spring. Chris Pugmire is Icicle’s general manager of operations for Western Alaska. He says they have a preventative strategy in place to protect the health of the surrounding communities by eliminating any contact between them and the processors. They will accomplish this by utilizing a floating processor, the Gordon Jensen.

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“Our plan is to bring the Gordon Jensen up to Togiak here at the end of the month. We’ll anchor off off shore, and we’ll keep our crew and staff on board the vessel for the duration of the fishery,” he said, adding that Icicle plans to have “zero impact” on the communities. 

According to Pugmire, Icicle is not straying much from its normal playbook with regard to the Togiak herring fishery. The workers on board the Gordon Jensen haven’t had contact with anyone off the vessel since early March, when Icicle locked down operations and stopped bringing on new crew members due to the pandemic.

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A state mandate requires all critical industry companies to submit a plan for disease prevention. Icicle submitted that plan to the state. They’ve been working with each location to develop customized protocols and procedures to ensure what Pugmire calls “the best prevention measures possible.”

“We are obviously looking at how we can minimize the number of employees that we are bringing into our locations, and as you mentioned, the turnover, and the means in which we bring people to our locations so that we’re not exposing folks to the communities in which we operate,” he said. 

The processor is using a screening process for employees, developed by HealthForce Partners, LLC, a third-party occupational health service, which involves temperature screening and asking workers where they have been. 

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In an email, Icicle Public Affairs Manager Julianne Curry said they were working on a plan to include fishermen in efforts to protect the community. As for the processing facilities, Icicle’s plan may include requiring employees to remain on company property at all times, allowing only essential personnel to visit the facilities, and modifying mess hall and galley operations to reduce the risk of transmission. According to Curry, Icicle also has space for employees to quarantine in the event of illness. 

Pugmire said that Icicle’s other facilities in Bristol Bay are isolated, and he thinks that minimal contact with the communities is possible. Still, he acknowledged that those measures only go so far, and that until a rapid test becomes available, Icicle will face many of the same challenges as other stakeholders in the fishing industry in terms of testing workers, hence the need for a preventative strategy.

The market for herring has declined in recent years — even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Trident Seafoods pulled out of the fishery. Still, Pugmire said, Icicle is holding out optimism despite the uncertainty surrounding this season.

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“We feel that it’s going to be strong enough to certainly justify the effort, but beyond that, I wouldn’t even feel comfortable speculating, ‘cause there’s just so many variables right now that could influence market conditions and — I mean, we’re always optimistic,” he said.

Two seine boats and three gillnetters are expected to tap the 80-million pound quota in Togiak this spring. Tim Sands, an area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the shrinking participation from processors and fishermen is due to the lack of market for herring.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected Fish and Game’s research as well. Sands said that this year, they are not bringing a field crew out to sample the commercial catch.

“The one processor is going to have a floating processor, so it’s going to be harder for us to get samples from them, versus if they were in Naknek and we could just go down to the plants and get them,” he said.

Sands will also be the only person conducting aerial surveys. While that’s not ideal, Sands said, they will work with the data they have.

The last few years have seen early starts to the Togiak fishery due to warm winters. But this year, biologists are expecting that to change.

“We anticipate a later spring this year than the last several years, and so with that will be a later herring fishery. So the last couple years, middle of April, last week of April, things have kind of got going.” 

This year, Sands said they’re expecting the fishery to open around the first week of May.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.