Salmon future looks fine, Icicle manager says

John Woodruff, vice president of operations for Icicle Seafoods Inc., was another speaker Friday at the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference meeting. And he had plenty to say.

Seattle-based Icicle is one of the largest seafood processors operating in Alaska. In fact, Woodruff ranks his company third among shoreside operators behind Trident and Maruha Nichiro.

"I'm a fish buyer," Woodruff began his talk. He oversees production at Icicle's Petersburg, Seward, Larsen Bay and Egegik plants, and spends a good part of his days talking directly with commercial fishermen.

Icicle also has floating processors, including the Northern Victor, a pollock processing ship based near Dutch Harbor.

Here's a sampler of Woodruff's remarks Friday:

• The outlook for wild Alaska salmon is rosy. Demand for two species in particular, pink and chum salmon, has surged remarkably.

Six or eight years ago, pinks paid fishermen only a nickel a pound, Woodruff said. Last year, Icicle paid 45 cents.

"There's a huge interest in wild-capture fish," he said, summing up the general market.

• Woodruff doesn't see quite the same upside for sockeye, historically the main money fish in Alaska's salmon crop.

"I personally don't think sockeye prices are gonna do what pinks and chums have done," he said.

He noted sockeye fillets marked at $9 a pound in Safeway stores.

"That's pretty pricey," Woodruff said.

Bristol Bay is the state's major sockeye fishery. Can fishermen there expect higher prices this summer?

"If I was a Bristol Bay fisherman, I'd plan for prices like what we've seen the past couple of years and hope for better," Woodruff said.

Last year's price was around $1 per pound, not counting bonuses.

• Speaking of Bristol Bay, Woodruff discussed the fishery's drive toward chilling more of the catch for better quality.

He said "well in excess" of half the fish Icicle buys at Bristol Bay is chilled, either with ice or refrigerated seawater systems aboard boats.

Bristol Bay packers, who once just canned the sockeye or froze them whole, now fillet about 15 percent of the catch, mainly for the domestic market, Woodruff said.

• Icicle's newest processing plant is at remote Adak, a former military base far out the Aleutian chain.

The plant is taking crab deliveries now, and contributing significant taxes to the fledging city of Adak, Woodruff said.

• In 2007, a private equity firm bought out Icicle.

"I gotta tell ya, I feel good about 'em," Woodruff said. "They allow us to do our job."

The goal of the firm, Paine & Partners, is to build up Icicle and then sell the company, he said.