Workers at a Pacific Seafood processing plant near Astoria are racing to finish modifications on a borrowed plant, after a devastating fire last week.
The fishing season is in full swing and Pacific Seafood has made a quick pivot to keep production rolling.
Crews have been busy at the site Pacific Seafood has leased as a temporary headquarters for processing whiting and ground fish.
Bill Hunsinger is a commissioner at the Port of Astoria, and has fished himself for 50 years. He’s been watching the action at the borrowed facility.
“The plant manager had 27 trucks in the morning bringing stuff to that facility,” Hunsinger says.
Hunsinger’s been in close contact with Pacific Seafood. The Warrenton facility was not a total loss. The dock still stands. And, Hunsinger says, the industrial ice machine that’s critical for keeping fish cold is still running. Parts of the plant will be functional this season.
“I can’t believe it, they’re working around the clock. I think they had every electrician in Clatsop County up there working on the electrical part of it.”
The temporary facility Pacific Seafood will use is subleased from California-based Del Mar Seafoods, which in turn leases it from the Port of Astoria. At this time of the year, the building is idle.
The fishing industry runs on a tight supply line. If processors aren’t open, fish can’t be put in a warehouse for a few days. Fishermen face losing tens of thousands of dollars per day. And related industry workers like processors, fish markets, and suppliers suffer as well.
So the destruction of the biggest fish processing plant in Clatsop County was a frightening jolt for fishermen up and down the Oregon Coast.
Commercial fisherman Gary Wintersteen’s boat is based in Warrenton, and he’s sold fish to Pacific Seafood on and off for about fifteen years.
“The dock manager, Domenic, called me up the day of the fire, said, ‘Stop stop stop fishing. We don’t know what’s going to happen here. We’re on fire.’ “
What unfolded at the dock was one of the largest structure fires in Clatsop County’s recent history, with departments in three neighboring jurisdictions responding.
The state fire marshal says it looks as though it was accidental, but a full report by insurance investigators is still pending.
Gary Wintersteen says he’s been impressed with how quickly Pacific got operations back on line, given the timing within the fishing season.
“Whiting is a very big deal. It’s a high-volume, high-dollar fishery. The guys that are participating in it, they like to get that fish caught, and then go to other fisheries. Their timing here looked like an absolute tragedy. This really is the best of all possibilities.”
Whiting represents 55 percent of Pacific Seafood’s processing business.
Some fishermen are taking their catch to other ports and other processors as far south as Newport, but quite a few are back in the area. This month’s shrimp catch seems to be the only variety that took a big loss.
Many of those who fish the northern coast go after a diverse range of fish.
The fire represents one piece in a larger picture for increasingly inter-related fisheries, which are sorting out what they can catch and sell in years to come.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife recently ruled that the lucrative gill-net salmon fishery will be confined to much more limited parts of the Columbia River in years to come.
Brenda Wall’s family has fished on the Columbia for over 100 years. Her business fishes exclusively for salmon and sturgeon. She doesn’t sell regularly to Pacific Seafood. But she is one of several in the region who see instability in the industry.
“When you live in a rural community, no one’s coming in starting up new industries here. We have what we have and we’re trying to hang on to what we have, because nothing new is coming.”
While sport fishing is big along the Oregon coast, Wall and others are trying to remind the state that commercial fishing plays a huge part in interconnected coastal communities.
Pacific Seafood hopes to have its loaner facility up and running Saturday, for the start of the shoreside Pacific whiting season.