Aug 26, 2010
Ugashik is a tiny village in lower Bristol Bay Alaska. Currently there are about 10 full-time residents. The population swells to about 50 people in the summer, all associated with fishing in one form or another. The village has an interesting history. It was one of the largest Native villages on the Alaska Peninsula until it was almost totally wiped out by the flu pandemic of the early 1900′s. It lives on today as a small community of fishermen.
In exploring old land surveys from the village we found that in the late 1800s there were as many as seven fish canning or salting companies here at once.
No large processing company has been in business here since the 1950s, when the Wingard’s Cannery operated here. It was acquired then by Alaska Packers Co. and shut down.
Getting Fish to Market
Since the Ugashik cannery closed decades ago, local fishermen have depended on a tender, a large boat sent the twenty miles up the Ugashik River by a large processing company, to buy our fish and get it to market. Five years ago, the major processing company that bought Ugashik salmon for last few years stopped buying fish in the village. No other buyer was found who was willing to send a tender up to village to buy fish.
Fishermen can’t sell their fish to just any processor. The processor must agree beforehand to buy fish from the fishermen, and ALL buyers maintain a mysterious ‘A list’ of preferred fishermen. You can be ‘downgraded’ or dropped at any time for any reason. You then have to find someone new to sell fish to, and if they want to freeze you out for any reason, it is a done deal.
You are not allowed to fish if you don’t have a buyer.
That year we people in Ugashik were lucky to be able to skip around to various buyers and get our fish sold over the course of the next few weeks. Fish were in short supply that year, and the quality of fish we were bringing to the processors was very good.
The following year this same processor that had shut our village fishermen out sent a letter to all the fishermen in the Ugashik fishing district telling them they would not be buying their fish the coming year. This was done in January and sent such a shock wave through the villages that we are still trying to recover.
It can take years to secure a good steady market for your fish. This left the fishermen floundering just months before fishing preparations were ready to start.
My husband’s family started a small processing company in the village back in the early 60’s. It mostly processes fish we catch after the large processors leave the area since they are usually only in Bristol Bay for the heaviest 4 weeks of an up to 12 weeks season. If area fishermen were inclined to work longer than the heaviest 4 weeks of the season, the company bought their fish as well.
That focus changed a few years ago when none of the large processors would send a tender up river to buy fish from the villagers. We worked to help bring in a new larger processor into the bay four years ago to buy fish during the heavy part of the season and began gearing up our plant so we could process more fish locally.
The Old Dock
After the cannery closed back in the ’50s, the old buildings and dock were parceled out and are now privately owned, including the ‘old dock’ portion which is owned by Ugashik Traditional Village, our local tribal entity.
This old dock portion has been used by the residents and visitors as a place to assemble, ‘hang’ nets, store boats and load gear on and off drift boats. At one time, when we still had boats delivering freight to the village, it was also used as a place to unload freight.
The old dock’s deteriorating condition the last 5-10 years had made most of this activity impossible or at ‘your own risk’, at best.
The actual dock and outer portion of the building finally collapsed about a year ago when a summer resident led an effort to demolish it. The workers were lucky enough to be ‘at lunch’ when the supports under the building portion splintered and led to the result shown in the photo, below.
Somehow the crew was under the assumption that the place to start in the demolition effort was UNDER the building. Excuse me for still being baffled by why they felt they needed to START there.
In April of this year, thank heavens, a professional company that used local people with some engineering experience was able to bring the building down safely.
The New Dock
During the last 6-7 years the Ugashik Traditional Village Tribal Counsel has been trying to get grants to either refurbish the old one or build a new dock. For a number of years before that there had been efforts to get a small, village-based fish processor started that would be owned by the tribe.
About 7-8 years ago the Tribe hired a consultant who suggested that they needed to concentrate on getting a dock built and then pursue a processing plant and other projects to boost the local economy. At that time there was an effort by the Denali Commission, an Alaska-based federally funded agency, to update docks in Western Alaska. The thinking back then was that getting monies for a dock, would be easier to obtain than funding for a processing plant. Build a dock, and a processing plant would follow.
The tribal council hired one consultant after another to help the council come up with some type of direction in which to develop more of an economical base than just their riverfront access to Bristol Bay’s salmon returning to their spawning grounds. Eventually, the Tribe hired a contractor/consultant to design a new dock. The drawings were done, and permits filed for. It was proposed that part of the existing building would be demolished, and a new steel and wood structure would be built.
Is This Project Necessary?
Ugashik has only 6-8 local drift boats that use a dock, for loading and unloading gear, and for no longer than 4-6 weeks each summer. The actual concentration of use is probably less than 10-14 days for the entire year.
The tribe is planning on spending $330,000 on this project. Does Ugashik really need a state of the art dock?
Coming soon — The Project Moves Forward