Richie Davis, owner of the F/V West Bank, looks out onto the deck Tuesday afternoon after returning from a three-day blackcod fishing trip. Davis is one of eight people to sign a letter opposing the local sale of trawl-caught fish. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

A Sitka-based seafood processor is taking heat from locals after purchasing trawl-caught fish.

Silver Bay Seafoods bought Pacific Ocean perch — a type of rockfish — from two trawlers delivering to the company’s plant in Sitka. Southeast waters are closed to trawling, and while nobody is disputing the legality of the catch, representatives of various fishing interests say the purchase undermines the ban.

In the face of that reaction, the company apologized for not giving that viewpoint more consideration. But the CEO also says they had the best interests of their company and the community in mind.

The 47-foot fishing vessel West Bank has just tied up in Sitka’s ANB Harbor, fresh off a three-day blackcod trip. Captain Richie Davis sits in the wheelhouse.

Davis is on the board of the Alaska Longline Fisherman’s Association, or ALFA for short. He’s also one of eight people to sign an open letter opposing a local processor’s recent purchase of trawl-caught fish. The letter was posted throughout Sitka and also carries the names of a local troller, the head of the Sitka Conservation Society, two subsistence gatherers, the Seafood Producers’ Cooperative, a charter captain and a sport fisherman.

Read the letter opposing the fish purchase. (PDF)

Davis’s signature is at the top.

“I just wanted the people of Sitka to know there are other activities that go on out here that aren’t necessarily compatible with the future of what you’ve built your community on,” he said.

Boats that trawl drag nets through the water or along the bottom of the ocean. The nets scoop up almost everything in their path. That often means a lot of bycatch, or fish the boat is not targeting. Depending on the species, could wind up thrown back into the ocean, dead. Trawl gear also can damage fish habitat and the sea floor.

“The bycatch of halibut in the Gulf of Alaska by the trawl fleet is 5 million pounds. The whole Southeast quota this year for the directed halibut fishery was 2.6 million pounds,” said Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. She pushed hard for the ban on trawling in Southeast waters that took effect in 1998.

“We’ve protected this area from that, protected the habitat from that, and don’t want to see those gains, in terms of resource protection and community level protections, reversed,” Behnken said.

Silver Bay says the fish was caught by mid-water trawlers, not bottom trawlers, and that they were destined for harvest regardless of where they ended up being processed.

Still, Behnken worries that trawler deliveries in Sitka could weaken the ban in Southeast. Here’s her argument: About a decade ago, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council started a process to “rationalize” Gulf of Alaska ground fisheries. Basically, they’re looking for ways to divvy out who gets to catch what among certain species, such as pacific cod, pollock and rockfish.

Behnken says the council pulled back from the project when Sarah Palin became governor, knowing she opposed it.

“Now the council is starting that process again,” Behnken said. “They just put the industry on notice this past spring that we’re starting to look at rationalizing these fisheries again; we’re not sure what form that will take.”

But she says it’s possible the council will look at what areas have had what fisheries. And they’ll look to processors, too. Behnken’s concern is that if the council sees trawl deliveries in Sitka, it might allocate trawl quota in Southeast.

“So I think that’s why this is a much bigger deal than one trawl delivery,” she said. “It’s concern about the precedent being set, and what that might lead to.”

She says her hope in drafting the letter, and the hope of those who’ve signed it, is that Silver Bay’s purchase was a one-time event. They want the company to avoid trawl-caught fish in the future.

Silver Bay CEO Rich Riggs wasn’t available for an on-tape interview. But he told KCAW that in the future, the company will give additional consideration to community sentiments.

Click to read the Silver Bay Seafoods letter. (PDF)

Riggs and Silver Bay issued a letter Thursday that says the company did not anticipate the adverse reaction buying the rockfish would cause. Riggs apologized for that.

“I simply did not anticipate and give further consideration to the community values shared by many in Sitka relative to the trawl fishery expanding further to processing,” he wrote. “No different than as a community we don’t demand that our local grocery stores or fast food restaurants rid their freezer cases of products made with Alaska’s pollock and/or cod harvested by trawl gear….”

Silver Bay Seafoods, Riggs says, is no proponent of trawling in Southeast waters that were closed back in 1998. He says the company and its managers had theirs and the community’s best interests in mind by making the purchase.

Based on state forecasts, Silver Bay says its Sitka plant was facing a 72 percent drop in salmon production from last year. Managers at the plant saw the rockfish purchase as a chance to help make up for the salmon drop-off and expand the company’s processing activities.

In the letter he also invites anyone who’s concerned to talk about the subject with him one on one.