Alaska seafood processors are paying tens of millions of dollars extra to cover costs from the Covid pandemic, and most of it is coming out of pocket.
Intrafish Media provides a first, in-depth look at how costs for providing protective gear like masks and gloves, testing thermometers, extra staff to handle sanitizing demands between work shifts, and modifying worker lines for social distancing are playing out in the nation’s seafood processing sector.
At Bristol Bay, for example, where around 13,000 workers from outside Alaska come to work on fishing boats and in 13 plants of varying sizes, it’s estimated that all major processors combined likely spent $30 million to $40 million on Covid-related costs during the two peak fishing months of June and July this summer.
Alaska processors covered extra costs for putting up employees in hotels and other 14-day quarantine sites, as required by the state. That alone added up to an estimated $3,500 per worker.
Seafood companies also paid for pricey charter flights to isolate workers from passengers on commercial flights.
Most medium to large processors had medical professionals onsite for the duration, at a cost of $30,000 to $60,000, Intrafish said.
Workers were tested multiple times for the virus, with costs amounting to $175 per test.
Intrafish cited testimony by Silver Bay Seafoods CEO, Cora Campbell, at a virtual U.S. Senate committee hearing on July 29.
"In the past several months, Alaska seafood processors have spent tens of millions of dollars implementing proactive health and safety protocols to ensure we are minimizing risks to Alaska communities, protecting our seasonal and resident workforce, and maintaining operations," she testified.
"The industry is taking on these costs out of pocket at the same time we are facing severe disruption in key markets and multiple pre-COVID cost burdens,” Campbell told the senators. “While a fraction of these costs may be reimbursed, we face significant uncertainty because there’s no specific congressional directive to support health and safety protocol costs for critical seafood supply chains."
Covid prevention measures have not been included so far in federal relief loans and funds. It is unknown if they will be added into a stimulus relief package Congress could eventually pass when it returns in September from a month long vacation.
Sympohny of Seafood expands
The call is out for products for Alaska’s biggest seafood bash: the Alaska Symphony of Seafood.
The annual competition, now in its 28th year, showcases a wide array of new market-ready Alaska seafood items at venues in Seattle and Juneau. Seafood lovers get to sample the goods that are privately judged in several categories. And as part of the event’s expansion plans, more opportunities have been added.
“This year, we expanded the product categories to feature whitefish and salmon categories in addition to food service, retail and Beyond the Plate, which features products made from seafood byproducts,” said Riley Smith, communications director with the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, host of the Symphony.
The event also has added a special platform for Bristol Bay. “Additionally, we expanded the special awards category to include a Bristol Bay Choice which will be awarded by the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association to the best sockeye salmon product. And included in that will be promotional and marketing support from the BBRSDA team,” Smith said.
Partnering with the fishermen-funded and operated BBRSDA will help Symphony winners grow their promotions and marketing, Smith added. Through savvy branding and marketing strategies, the Bristol Bay model has seen its sockeye salmon sales expand to over 2,000 U.S. retail outlets in just a few years.
“Down the line we hope to create more partnerships with retailers and in-store promotions for our winners, and we're really trying to approach this from every angle to increase the positive impact of the Symphony for companies big and small,” Smith said.
One of the most unique things about the Symphony competition is that it levels the playing field between the biggest seafood producers and the smallest mom and pop’s.
Last year, for example, Bullwhip Hot Sauce by Barnacle Foods of Juneau was a triple winner at retail, the Juneau People’s Choice and the overall Grand Prize.
Big Symphony wins have led to shelf space at CostCo and other major outlets for Alaskan Leader Seafood’s cod fish and chips meal kit, as well as a pet food deal with Purina for its Cod Crunchies dog treats made from fish trimmings.
“The Symphony is recognized around the world as a spearhead of product development coming out of Alaska and the annual competition is a super great place to show off your favorite recipe,” said Keith Singleton, president of Alaskan Leader’s value-added division. “It may lead to e-commerce, retail, club store or food service companies that will carry your brand to consumers.”
“It’s worked amazingly well for us,” he added. “Everyone thought we were just a fishing company, but in reality, we are a ‘seafood’ company. The winnings that we’ve enjoyed have landed us in some wonderful markets around the world. So go for it!”
All top winners get a free trip to the big Seafood Expo in Boston in March and entry into its national competition.
This year’s lineup of new Alaska seafood products will be judged in late November and top winners will be announced at Pacific Marine Expo in early December. The Symphony then replays in Juneau in February where more winners will be announced.
Smith said even if the Expo or the Symphony events are upended by the Covid virus, the show will go on.
“Absolutely! There will be a judging and there will be awards and promotions to retail associated with the Symphony,” he said.
Find Alaska Symphony of Seafood entry forms at www.afdf.org. Deadline to enter is October 6.
Grant give backs
American Seafoods is accepting applications for its Alaska Community Grant Program from the following regions: Kodiak Island, Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, Western Alaska Peninsula, Bristol Bay, Lower Kuskokwim, Lower Yukon, Norton Sound and regions north.
Since 1997, American Seafoods has granted over $1.7 million to Alaskan groups and programs through its regional programs.
“Our goal is to provide assistance and financial support to organizations that are making a real difference in the communities where we operate,” company president Inge Andreassen said in a press release.
The amount available for grant awards for this round is $45,000 to fund community projects such as food security, housing, safety, education, research, natural resources, cultural activities and other pressing social needs. The majority of grant awards will range from $1,000 to $7,500 each.
The deadline to submit applications is October 12.The grant recipients will be announced by the company’s community advisory board on October 28.
Seafood savvy sought
The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, the state’s lone marketing arm, is seeking committee members who advise on strategic operations and selling of nearly every fish in the sea.
ASMI, which is a public/private partnership between the state and industry, is guided by a wide range of stakeholders who provide market insights and strategies for outreach to over 110 countries.
“For example, we refer to one group as the species committee and they focus on issues specific to whitefish, salmon, shellfish. Their issues are all very different and they differ across Alaska, so we have representatives from those fisheries to guide us,” said Ashley Heimbigner, ASMI communications director.
Other ASMI committees provide expertise on domestic and international marketing, communications and technical support.
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