Established as The Skamokawa Eagle in 1891

Fishermen being pinched by low prices

Every year, commercial fishermen and women from Wahkiakum County head to Alaska to make their living. They’ve been doing it for generations, and it’s because, as one of those fishermen explained to me, fishing isn’t something you do, it’s who you are.

What they are right now is angry.

On July 17, the Bristol Bay fishing community learned that they would receive $0.50 per pound for their catch, less than half the price they received the year before, which was $1.15, plus the $0.30 per pound they receive for better handling of fish which includes the use of RSW (refrigerated seawater) to keep them cold.

“For us to get $0.50 put on us was really tough,” Bill Olsen said. “Processors are complaining that their expenses are 18 percent higher than last year, but so were ours. They took it out of our cut to pay their expenses. They didn’t pass it on to the consumer.”

To add insult to injury, fishermen didn’t even see the full $0.50, because five cents goes to the nearby borough and another one percent goes to something else.

And because there are fewer processors than there used to be, the fishermen believe they are able to get away with offering to buy the fish at such a low price. It’s becoming a monopoly.

“There are five major buyers now,” Olsen said. “There used to be a lot more. That might have helped with the price.”

“It’s called corporate greed,” Olsen added later. “The people in those offices will get a huge bonus come January when these fish sell. They aren’t looking out for us.”

Meanwhile, retail prices haven’t dropped.

Another fisherman, Bud Waddell said that he takes home fish every year. This year, when he asked the processor to box up so many pounds of fish, unprocessed, they charged him $9 a pound for the same fish they just gave him $0.50 a pound for.

According to Olsen, Bristol Bay sockeye salmon is the highest quality fish in the world, comparable to Wagyu beef, and can be found for as much as $20 a pound in Seattle.

“Old-timers would say the price per pound of salmon flowed with the price of the gallon of gas,” Olsen said. “If the price of a gallon of gas was $1.25, that’s kind of what they gauged it on. If we gauged off of that, it should be in the $4 range. But even if it was at the base price of $2 a pound plus RSW, then everybody could be comfortable and make a good living.”

“As far as our community here, it has taken a huge hit,” Olsen said of Wahkiakum. “I’m going to tell you personally that I did not drag home about $125,000 this year to spend at the Dollar Store or Maria’s or the Napa store. That’s just me. I don’t catch the amount of fish that these other guys do.”

Considering the number of local fishermen impacted by this, it’s a couple million dollars not coming back into this community and being spent at local businesses, another fisherman, Mike Crouse clarified.

“Everybody should be mad about this,” Olsen added.

Crouse also pointed out that it takes tens of thousands to run those boats every year, and this year’s paycheck isn’t helping anybody.

Waddell, who also fishes in Bristol Bay with his son Ben, said that their cost of business was going up, and that just starting up the season cost them $40,000. That pays for roundtrip airfare, insurance, boat storage, food, and gear.

Insurance alone has gone up about 15 percent each year for the last two years, Crouse said, and total cost depends on the size of the operation, which varies with each of the 1,800 drift permits that operate in Bristol Bay.

Waddell said their insurance was $11,000.

Airfare has doubled. Pre-covid, a flight to Alaska was $700 a round trip, Erla Crouse said. Now it’s more like $1,600-1,700.

And fuel costs for fishing?

“You might as well say it costs $500 each time we go fishing,” Waddell. “Not $500 a day. $500 every time we go out.”

Upgrading a boat to RSW is another $70,000-100,000, and that is now being mandated by some canneries.

Just buying into the Bristol Bay fishery can cost a pretty penny. The price of drift permits when they become available ebb and flow with the price of fish.

“There are guys who bought a permit when the price was really down and paid $20,000,” Mike Crouse said. “There are guys who bought in at $135,000, there are guys paid $240,000. They were up to 400,000 at one time. If a guy is ready to retire at this point like this, they just lost $90,000 because of this price.”

As for what to do, no one is certain, and with 1,800 different operations, agreement is hard to come by.

“I’m just saying we control our own destiny, but we don’t know how to do it,” Olsen said.

“We can’t get united, it’s too diverse, there are too many x factors, and not everyone is going to have the same view of that factor of the piece of the equation. Which is why we’re in this position,” Erla said.

“You think about how Cathlamet was formed,” Olsen said. “It was by the Columbia River fishery and the Bristol Bay fishery, I used to know every single person that walked through the door when I was a kid, but now I know nobody. They don’t know that what founded this town was fish, timber, and dairy.”

"And I don’t think they realize how many of us are still here that do the fisheries whether they are local or Alaska," Erla said. “There are still quite a few people in Cathlamet who have been here for decades who partake in fisheries and bring that money back to the community.”

They do this work because they love it, Waddell said.

Because it’s who they are.

“But the love of doing it has also got to pay the bills,” Olsen said. “If they do it to us again, you’re going to see suicides, you’re going to see boats burning up, you’re going to see canneries getting burnt down. If they do this again, it’s going to be bad. If they back to back this.”

 

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