Just inside the Port of Astoria’s cavernous Hangar 2, leased by Del Mar Seafoods since 2006, about 30 workers process, pack, box and freeze whiting.
Next to them, more welders and laborers assemble the parts of a new packing line and platform in preparation for the addition of a bottom fish hand fillet line shipped from Seattle. Trucks arrive at the loading docks of the former seaplane hangar with whiting from Canada and take frozen fish from Tongue Point to customers around the world.
But these aren’t Del Mar employees or products going in and out of the faded green and beige hangar at Tongue Point.
Del Mar and the Port of Astoria scrambled to help executives from the Pacific Coast Seafood plant restart operations at Tongue Point less than two weeks after a fire destroyed all but its ice house and dock in Warrenton.
The two fish processors signed a sublease lasting through June 1.
“We took our first delivery on the 15th (of June), 11 days after the fire,” said Mike Brown, the general manager for Pacific Seafood’s Warrenton and Astoria operations. “We think that was a pretty good accomplishment. We’re still obviously adding equipment to enhance and increase capacities and operations.
“It was pretty wild the first week – probably 50 to 70 truck-loads back and forth.”
Brown said the fish haven’t been coming in strongly yet, and Pacific, which has locations from Alaska to California, has been shipping in whiting from Canada to process. It stored much of Del Mar’s equipment around Tongue Point and at its Warrenton facility.
It still uses its Warrenton facility to provide ice to boats and to offload its bottom fish. Meanwhile, it processes and packages Pacific whiting, along with smaller amounts of cod and other bycatch, at Tongue Point and will start bottom fish fillets by Friday.
Yearround, Brown said, Pacific Coast Seafoods in Warrenton has employed 140 people, while using up to 60 seasonal workers.
Pacific’s temporary space looks every bit a hangar originally meant for seaplanes patrolling the coast during World War II, with its cavernous innards, stark industrial facade and large bay doors. But inside the chasm of space sit several squat fish processing lines and two large freezers each capable of holding 300,000 pounds of product.
Lin Koh, a recently hired Oregon State University graduate who studied at the seafood lab in Astoria, said the processing is going smoothly so far, even as workers keep adding to the lines.
On Tuesday, a group of about 30 workers processed Canadian whiting, as the fishing hasn’t picked up yet. A machine at the beginning of the whiting processing line removes the head and guts of the whiting, which then go through a cleaner and onto the packing line.
“They’re packing the headed and gutted fish into a (10-kilogram) package,” said Koh, who works on quality assurance and research and development for Pacific Seafood and nearby Bio-Oregon. “And then we box it, then we freeze it.”
Although it’s not in use, the Tongue Point plant also contains a line for packaging whole whiting.
Koh and others check the size, color, smell and other aspects of incoming fish to determine if they’re good enough for packaging and export. Much of the whiting leftovers, along with fish unusable for packaging, goes to Bio-Oregon for fish meal.
When whiting does come in on boats, Brown said, they’ll dock at a finger pier outside, and the fish will be pumped more than 2,700 feet underground to the plant. “That’s what made this almost an easy fit to get what we needed going.”
Earlla Michaelson, head of bottom fish packers, and Denice Davis, lead filleter, have a combined 45 years with the company. They said it’s been an adjustment moving to the new plant and a slightly smaller space. But they’re grateful for how the company stepped up.
“I saw my life go up,” said Michaelson about leaving the Warrenton plant as it burned up June 4. “I raised my children on that income out there, so I was devastated.
“Our owner has certainly stepped up to the plate and taken care of his people.”
Frank Dulcich, Pacific Seafood president and CEO, continued paying employees and providing benefits after the fire. Brown said he called within three hours of the fire, saying he was heading to Astoria to look at potential options for a replacement facility.
“You get used to the way everything is, and now this is a completely different setup,” said Davis, who has 23 filleters working under her. “And the fillet line is going to be quite a bit different than what we have over there.”
We’re trying “to get our hand fillet operation going, which is very important to our business and to our people,” said Brown. “We have about a 60-person year-round crew that works just in bottom fish.”
Brown said Pacific Coast Seafoods, when it reaches peak capacity, can process 500,000 to 600,000 pounds of seafood a day, adding that Tongue Point should be adequate for its usual volume.
The lease with Del Mar, lasting until June 1, buys Pacific nearly a year of operations at Tongue Point, and Brown said the company is hoping to find a long-term solution in that time frame.
‘The right thing to do’
Del Mar would usually be preparing this time of the year to process sardines at Tongue Point, which it uses between June and September. But it gave up the plant this year for Pacific Seafood.
“It was (CEO) Joe Cappuccio’s decision,” said Joe Roggio, the chief financial officer for Del Mar, adding that Cappuccio is friends with Dulcich. “He just felt like it was the right thing to do.”
Making the decision easier for Del Mar was the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s announcement in November. It set 2013 catch levels for the U.S. West Coast Pacific sardine fishery at 66,495 metric tons, down more than 40 percent from 2012. Population assessments showed a 33-percent decline from last year.
“For this year, we chose to opt out of processing sardines (in Oregon) to help out Pacific Seafood,” said Roggio, adding that in addition to rent, Del Mar is also leasing some of its equipment to Pacific.
The lease is between Del Mar and Pacific, but the Port, which leases North Tongue Point from the Montana-based Washington Group and in turn part of it to Del Mar, did the legal legwork to make the deal happen.
“After that nasty, terrible fire they had, I simply reached out via email to ask how the Port could help,” said Port CEO Hank Bynaker, adding that attorneys helped him work quickly through the legal minutiae of the sublease.
“They lose a lot of money not being able to operate properly. I’m not sure they have anywhere else they could go in this region.”
He added that the Port could be discussing a separate lease agreement with Pacific to cover its expansion beyond the existing footprint of Del Mar, possibly for storage space.
With the cause of the Warrenton fire still under investigation, representatives from Del Mar and Pacific said they’ll reassess their respective positions as the lease nears its end.
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.