Fishermen and community leaders react to Trident announcement to sell a third of its Alaska plants
Gerry Cobban Knagin is a commercial fisherman. She and her family have fished around Kodiak and sold their harvest to Trident Seafoods, one of the largest seafood processors in the country, on and off for decades.
But on Dec. 12, the company announced it’s selling off about a third of its Alaska processing plants, including their year-round facility in Kodiak. She said the announcement was a huge shock for almost everyone on the island.
“Speaking with [Trident] management, there wasn’t any heads up for anyone,” Knagin said. “And they decided, according to management, that they wanted full transparency so that the fleet would know.”
Trident Seafoods has a huge footprint in Kodiak – the processing plant is one of the biggest buildings in the city’s downtown and can process more than a million pounds of pollock a day.
The company has been a part of the community for half a century and employs between 100 and 300 people, depending on what fishery they’re processing. That doesn’t even include all of the fishermen who run independent businesses that sell fish to them, like Knagin.
But now, all of those people are left questioning their job security.
The archipelago’s Tanner crab season starts next month but Knagin said she’s dismayed that there seems to be little commitment from the company for upcoming fishing seasons.
“They [Trident] will be buying Tanners, and they will be buying for the A season of Pollock – they cannot expand on anything else past that,” she said. “So, we are salmon fishermen, and they cannot guarantee that they will be available for us to buy our salmon.”
Alexis Telfer, with Trident’s corporate communications, declined to verify if they will be buying Tanner crabs or salmon next summer, and refused to comment further. She said they’re focused on supporting their employees, fishermen, and partners at this time.
In a press release, Trident wrote it would operate “a significantly scaled-back winter season,” in Kodiak but did not provide any more information.
The announcement comes on the heels of a reduced fall salmon fishing season across most of the state and just a month ahead of the opening of Kodiak’s Tanner crab season, which is expected to be the second largest harvest for that species in decades.
“It’s troubling for every one of us in Kodiak,” said Pat Branson, the City of Kodiak’s mayor.
Branson said city officials didn’t have any kind of advanced notice that the processor would sell the Kodiak facility. She said she met with Trident staff when the announcement went public, but didn’t get any more information than was on the press release.
Branson shared concerns for the Kodiak plant staff and families, especially going into the holiday season.
“It’s going to affect everyone whether you’re involved in the fishing business or not because that’s what our economic engine is here,” she said. “Having a major player in our community, like Trident, putting their business up for sale, is really a concern for all of us.”
Branson said city officials are going to keep a close eye on the state of fisheries moving forward. She said all the city can hope for now is that Trident will be transparent as potential sales move forward.
But Kodiak’s not the only place Trident is selling assets. The company announced their facilities in False Pass, Petersburg, and Ketchikan are for sale as well. The company will also either sell or retire the historic Diamond NN Cannery in Naknek and its support facilities in Chignik.
Bob Martin lives in Petersburg and has sold fish to Trident for about 25 years. He said he was expecting Trident to shut down its plant nearby in Wrangell since it doesn’t operate as often.
“They’d skipped a few years and they fired that up – I thought maybe they were running that just to sell it,” he said. “I heard that rumor last year, but that was a completely reverse situation because that’s the one they seem to be hanging on to.”
The plants in those communities mostly focus on salmon in the summer, so Martin said he has a bit more time to figure out what he’s doing.
“As hard as it was to hear, I guess I’m glad they told us now, instead of later so it does give us time to curtail any extravagant spending and prepare for the worst,” Martin said.
It’s been a tough year for the state’s fisheries.
Processors have offered fishers some of the lowest prices for their harvest in years, sparking stand downs and protests across the state. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s conference in November pointed to declining demand for seafood, huge harvests, and foreign competition as some of the key problems.
Gunnar Knapp is an economist and has followed Alaska’s fisheries for decades. He said he was about as shocked as everyone else when the announcement was made, but understands that Trident is in a tough spot.
“In light of what we’ve heard people from Trident and other fish processing companies saying about the situation that they’re facing, Knapp said. “The challenges that they’re facing with regard to their markets, supply, demand – it’s been a really tough time for them.”
Knapp said Trident isn’t the first Alaska seafood processor to sell plants and assets. He said that historically, many companies have struggled to maintain a viable business in the state’s fisheries.
“You’ve had many large processors that have been dominant for decades, and then the markets change and you have plants being bought and sold and things change and sort of new players emerge,” he said.
Knagin, in Kodiak, said she would have liked to continue selling fish to Trident, but now that the plant she lives near is being sold, she’s not sure what the next year will look like for her.
“It raises a tremendous amount of uncertainty in our minds right now of whether or not we will have a market,” Knagin said. “The other processing plants have full fleet, so where does that leave the 45 boats that fish for Trident out of Kodiak? Where do we go? What do we do?”
Knagin said Trident leaving the island paints a bleak picture for the seafood industry as a whole – Kodiak has three other processors in town that employ hundreds of people between them during peak season.
It’s currently unknown if Trident has any potential buyers for the Kodiak processing plant, or any of its other plants listed for sale.