KODIAK — This summer’s salmon harvest is shaping up to be a bumper year –– early catches have already broken records. But, while all that salmon will keep Kodiak’s seafood processors busy, some are more focused on quality, rather than quantity.
Kodiak Island Wildsource’s processing activity Wednesday morning consisted of just two men filleting sockeye salmon.
“We’re the little guy,” said Chris Sannito, a seafood technology specialist who serves as Wildsource’s CEO.
Sannito explained that Wildsource doesn’t have a tender, which means it’s not able to capitalize on the 2019 salmon season to the same extent that the larger processors are. It also doesn’t have the same amount of cold storage space, which means it takes fewer deliveries before it’s maxed out.
“We’re just newly opened, so we’re kind of getting into a groove,” Sannito said. “Rockfish was a really good season for us this year –– that kept us busy and we employed a lot of people.”
Sannito said Wildsource had six employees working simultaneously at that point, which is almost the maximum number that can work in the small building.
Wildsource was established in 2004 and purchased by the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak in 2009. It was formerly housed on the second floor of the recently demolished building at 420 Marine Way.
“That posed a lot of problems, because every pound of fish we did had to come up an elevator, all our waste had to go down an elevator,” Sannito said. “It was far from ideal.”
The processor stopped operating for several years after a fire devastated the building in 2016. Last year, it reopened its doors at its new location, 419 Shelikof Street.
“We’ve just kind of got the minimum stuff we need to make it work here,” Sannito said, walking a Kodiak Daily Mirror reporter through the main facility and out onto the dock to point out a small crane. “This is a big part of what we didn’t have in the old facility: a place where we could offload boats. Now, we have our own crane. A lot of engineering went into mounting a new crane onto an old dock.”
According to Sannito, Wildsource works near exclusively with Kodiak’s small boat fleet, like charter boats and, he said, “the jig fleet especially.” Almost all the processing done at Wildsource is custom work.
Walking back into the facility, Sannito opened up a large walk-in cooler, where fish can be stored before its processed. Sannito emphasized that Wildsource doesn’t have the same financial clout as the neighboring canneries, but that they found ways to work within a constrained budget during construction.
“We just assembled this (the cooler) with leftover panels that we had and put a new cooler unit up there,” Sannito said. “This whole project we were on a pretty tight budget. We had to do this with limited means. So, I’m very happy with the way this turned out to get us where we’re at.”
Sannito then pointed out some of the equipment that Wildsource boasts –– including a smoker large enough for several people to comfortably stand in, which can be used for either cold or hot smoking; and a small-scale commercial vacuum-packer, which Sannito said can be used to brand seafood for any client.
“One of the processors has a machine like this –– Ocean Beauty,” Sannito said. “But years ago, these kind of products weren’t really thought of much by the big processors, just because of the volume. But now I think more are starting to look into value-added processing.”
Value-added processing was a phrase that Sannito dropped into conversation several times. Creating custom products that have a higher market value is what Wildsource has to do to survive –– given that, as Sannito said, their processing volume is “a drop in the bucket compared to what they (the large processors) do.”
Sannito said that working within this niche means that Wildsource not only supports the small boat fishermen –– particularly those who prefer independent, direct-marketing –– but also works alongside the larger processors.
“Some of this work here is from the large processors, which is very helpful,” he said.
James Turner, who has worked as the plant manager of Ocean Beauty’s Kodiak facility since 2013, corroborated this. In fact, he said, the sockeye that was being custom-processed Wednesday had been caught by one of Ocean Beauty’s setnetters passed along to Wildsource for custom processing. Turner said that places such as Wildsource can be of great assistance to Ocean Beauty.
“Sometimes, when you’re in the busy mode, you don’t have time to do the smaller specifics they want,” he said. “So, we’ll send it to Chris.”
According to Sannito, at its peak, there were at least 15 processors on Kodiak’s waterfront. Over the years, most of those have either closed down or been bought out by larger firms.
This trend has continued.
Last year, Silver Bay Seafoods purchased a number of defunct cannery buildings on Marine Way before purchasing the processing facility owned by Global Seafoods North America. There are now just a handful of large-scale processors remaining on Kodiak’s waterfront: Ocean Beauty, Trident Seafoods, Alaska Pacific Seafoods and International Seafoods of Alaska. Beyond Wildsource, there are also several other custom-processors: Island Seafoods (which was purchased by Pacific Seafood Group in 2003), Kodiak Island Smokehouse and Kodiak Smoking.
“We’re very friendly with Jeremy down the street, and he’s getting started here pretty soon too,” Sannito added, referring to Jeremy Abena, who told KDM in October that he’s planning on opening a small-scale custom-processor where Pickled Willy’s used to be.
“We’ll be doing fresh, frozen, as well as smoked,” Abena said at the time. “I’ll be doing pretty much anything and everything local to Kodiak — including sea cucumbers and hopefully a few other different little things.”
Sannito said that, with the consolidation, the local processing industry has changed in some ways, while remaining the same in other ways.
“It’s the big guys that set the price on the fish. They’re the players really,” he said. “The small guys, like us, just follow them.”
But being a custom-processor does sometimes mean Wildsource can give fishermen a better price for their catch.
“There are niche products that we can pay more for,” Sannito said. “If we’re looking to make lox out of red salmon, we can offer a real nice, high price for those fish and get them to handle the fish a certain way on board. So those kinds of things can drive the price up, I’d say.”
While Turner acknowledged that consolidation has occurred on the waterfront, he envisions a future where large processors and independent and custom-processors co-exist.
“We’ve got a lot of personal use fishermen. We’ve got a lot of charter boats. As long as the charters and as long as the personal use fishermen keep coming to town, we’ll have a need for custom-processing,” he said. “It’s important for our community to have the custom facilities –– the larger plants are focused on their fleets.”
Turner said there will likely always be a niche market for the custom-processors –– particularly as the mid-range processors such as Global Seafoods North America, which used to serve the bulk of Kodiak’s jig fleet, disappear.
Few are more aware of this than Darius Kasprzak, a Kodiak jig fisherman who serves as president of the Alaska Jig Association. Kasprzak said he’s particularly pleased that Wildsource reopened.
“That’s where I’ll be taking my next offload,” he said. “It’s really the only option I have right now for the type of custom processing that I want to do.”
Kasprzak said he has good relationships with several firms –– but it’s tough to find a consistently reliable custom-processor. Depending on the season, for example, the smaller canneries can be inundated with deliveries from the charter fleet.
“I must say Wildsource has been consistent in being able to process our fish,” he said. “Wildsource are reliable and you can count on them. They’re not getting flooded with big scale commercial products and the charter fleet.”
In May 2018, Kasprzak told city officials that as consolidation has occurred on the waterfront, there are increasingly fewer options for the small-boat fleet.
“I have orders right now that I can’t fulfill because there’s no custom processing,” said Kasprzak at the time.
“That was during a time when Wildsource was not available,” Kasprzak said Wednesday. “Ever since I started direct-marketing my jig-fish … our hold up has always been a lack of processing options.”
Kasprzak said that the dearth of mid-scale processors that do custom-processing on a larger scale than places like Wildsource have made it tricky.
Now, Kasprzak says, he makes use of every custom-processor in town –– partially out of necessity; when one is tied up with orders, he’ll use a different one. He added that, from a jigging point of view, Kodiak can always use more custom-processors.
“The more custom processing options there are, the better. We all have different custom processing needs, from a very small scale to a very large scale,” he said. “It’s really tough to rely on one custom processor.”
If things go according to plan, Wildsource may eventually be able to handle even more fishermen like Kasprzak. Dave Kaplan, the transportation and properties manager for the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak, said that the facility is not done growing.
“We’re applying for some big time grants to finish this whole dock –– all the way out. It’s going to be a multi-million dollar project,” he said. “We’re going to knock that building down on the right, pull out all the pilings, put in new pilings. It’ll be a beautiful new dock with float ramps and everything.”
Sannito said that the company is also applying for a grant to build a new facility just adjacent to the main building, which will house two cold storage units, an ice-maker and space to work on various processing projects.
“Right now, we’re trying to build ourselves back to the point we were right before the fire. We were on a really good trend. I mean, we had many years under our belt of established customers. Being out of business for two years, we kind of lost some of our customers,” Sannito said. “So we’ve got to rebuild.”