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Alitak District setnetters scrambling after OBI dismantles area’s salmon market months before summer season starts

Set-netters pick a sockeye out of the net in June, 2022. (Sabine Poux/KDLL)
Set-netters pick a sockeye out of the net in June, 2022. (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

OBI Seafoods announced earlier this month [March 8] that it would not be buying salmon from the setnet fleet in Kodiak’s Alitak District. The decision does not affect the area’s seine fleet.
Less than three months before the commercial season opens, dozens of fishers are reeling from the surprise announcement.

On a Friday evening earlier this month [March 8], leadership from OBI Seafoods called individual fishers in the Alitak District letting them know the company would not be buying salmon this summer, effectively dismantling the market for that area of the island.

Kevin Fisher is the President of the Alitak District Setnet Association which represents almost 70 permit holders, some of whom live in the Lower 48 and come up to Kodiak Island to fish in the summer. Others live at their fish camps on the southern end of the island or in Kodiak year round. He said as of March 20, only about half of the area’s permit holders have committed to fishing this season.

“I’ve had about five people tell me they are planning not to fish this summer with the current situation,” Fisher said.

OBI is the sole buyer in the area and usually provides essentials like ice, fuel, and tender services through the company’s facility at Alitak. And the news comes roughly three months before the start of the season.
One fisher, Hannah Heimbuch of Twin Peaks Fish Camp noted in a statement from the association that the timing of the news is particularly challenging. She said, “this would have been difficult news in September. In March, it’s devastating.”

The association said OBI has indicated it will consider buying Alitak setnet fish in Kodiak, if the fleet is able to contract with a tender and transport their catch 120 nautical miles to town. Fisher said the association is in conversations with OBI about that possibility but he isn’t able to say much else at this point in time.

The company’s decision affects dozens of families who have setnetted in the area for decades, in many cases, over multiple generations, as well as local subsistence harvesters who participate in the commercial fishing season.

Marvin Agnot of Akhiok affords to live a subsistence lifestyle by also participating in commercial fishing for salmon. He said in a statement through the association, “my goal as a setnetter is to share my knowledge with the kids in Akhiok, to teach them how to setnet so they too can choose to stay in the village and fish if they want. We don’t have a lot of options to earn money down here, fishing and the support services provided by the processor is a critical piece of the puzzle to subsist and keep our remote community viable,” Agnot said.

OBI Seafoods did not respond to KMXT’s request for comment. The City of Akhiok also did not return KMXT’s request for comment, but Fisher has talked to several fishermen in the community. He said the impact this decision would have on Akhiok is not entirely clear yet, as OBI is still deciding whether or not to allow local fishermen to purchase fuel from the Alitak support facility.

“As of right now it’s my understanding that they are still going to get fuel from Alitak. So I don’t think it’s a great huge problem this year but I do see it [being a problem] going forward, depending on how much resupply [OBI Seafoods] take into Alitak, whether they can have any left over to sell,” Fisher explained.

In other words, propane. Fisher went on to say that residents of Akhiok will typically purchase propane fuel from OBI’s Alitak facility if they have any left-over towards the end of the season. Logistics and potential solutions to provide critical services are still being worked out between Akhiok, the Alitak District Setnet Association and OBI Seafoods for the upcoming salmon season.

Fisher said if the Alitak setnetters can survive this summer, there is a silver lining for future fishing in the southern area of Kodiak Island.

“I think it’s going to drastically change the way we produce our fish and get our fish to market. And I think that there is going to be a lot more responsibility on the fishermen. And I think we can take on that challenge and make that happen. It’s just going to be tough to get started in a short amount of time,” Fisher stated.

He also acknowledged that not every setnetter in the Alitak District may survive this summer’s season, but Fisher hopes the ones who can’t make it work financially this year will be able to fish next year.

The 2024 summer commercial salmon season opens on June 1.

The Alitak Cannery, an OBI Seafoods facility shown in 2020. (OBI Seafoods)
The Alitak Cannery, an OBI Seafoods facility shown in 2020. (OBI Seafoods)