Haines is likely to see an increase in raw fish tax revenue this summer. A higher pink salmon harvest and increased market demand for frozen fish means Ocean Beauty Seafoods plans to scale up production at its Excursion Inlet plant. Excursion Inlet is about 40 miles west of Juneau but is part of the Haines Borough.
Last year, fishermen in Southeast landed around 18 million pink salmon. That was a pretty low harvest, and Haines collected only about $80,000 in raw fish tax. Revenue is likely to rise into the $200,000 range or higher after this summer. The harvest is predicted to be better than the past three years, around 43 million pinks.
“Which is quite a bit higher than last year’s harvest. So we’re gearing up for that,” said Mike Forbush, who oversees Ocean Beauty Seafoods’ Southeast Alaska operations.
“We’re actively in the gillnet fleet, especially in the Lynn Canal,” Forbush said. “And we’re going to be aggressive and try to buy as much gillnet fish as we can.”
The Excursion Inlet plant will also see more fish because of influences from the canned and frozen salmon markets. Forbush says the demand for canned salmon has diminished, partly because the U.K.’s pound is weak against the U.S. dollar.
The shift in priorities from canned to frozen will be good for Haines but bad for Petersburg. Instead of running full operations at its Petersburg cannery, Ocean Beauty is leasing a floating processor with more freezing ability to tie to its dock there.
“That way we’re maximizing the frozen product rather than being forced to put some fish in a can,” Forbush said. “And we tied it up to the Petersburg dock so they get some tax from that fish.”
Still, some of the salmon that would normally go to Petersburg will now be directed to Excursion Inlet, which has more freezing capacity.
“During the slower month of July for seining, we’re not going to have that processing ship there,” Forbush said. “So all that fish that would’ve gone to Petersburg is now gonna go to Excursion Inlet. It could be another two million pound uptick that we’ll freeze at Excursion versus freezing at Petersburg.”
Forbush says the expected increase in fish and focus on freezing means Ocean Beauty will hire about 60 more people than last year to work at the Excursion plant. He says there will be a total of about 330 workers.
There is one piece of bad news for the Excursion Inlet operation. A bridge that connects the plant to its water source at Neva Lake is deteriorating with no plan for repair or replacement.
“It’s a major concern for us,” Forbush said.
The U.S. Forest Service owns the Neva Lake Bridge. In July of last year, the Forest Service closed the bridge to vehicle traffic for safety reasons.
“We have a pipeline that carries the water down to the plant,” Forbush said. “But our concern is if we get a faulty valve or something like that, how are we going to get that 300-pound valve up the hill to service it?”
Haines Interim Borough Manager Brad Ryan says he is urging the Forest Service to replace the bridge. The borough has even set aside $250,000 to help pay for it. Ryan says the total cost is estimated at about $700,000.
“I’ve been asking [the Forest Service] how we as the borough can inspire them to move forward, and even asked them if we had all $700,000 to pay for this bridge, would it move forward then?” Ryan said. “And the answer was ‘we don’t know.’ And I was like, really?”
Ryan recommended applying to the regional resource advisory committee for funding as a way to draw attention to the project. Assembly members also suggested writing letters to senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan.
Ocean Beauty’s Forbush says as long as nothing catastrophic happens, the bridge access shouldn’t hinder the Excursion Inlet plant operations. But he says it is a concern if the condition of the bridge isn’t addressed in years to come.