A chum salmon leaping (Photo by K. Mueller/USFWS)

In Petersburg, the chum salmon from several hatcheries have all come in at once to OBI Seafoods processing plant. Workers are averaging 17-hour shifts to keep up with a volume they say they’ve never seen before.

Everything is in motion at OBI Seafood. Forklifts and rubber-clad workers are bustling across the loading area. Inside, lines of workers are passing fish down long steel-topped counters, chopping and removing eggs as they go. They say they’ve never seen this much chum salmon at once.

“This is, like, the chumpocalypse,” said Marlene Garcia, who has been working at OBI for ten years.

Normally the really big quantities of fish, and consequently the long workdays, start in August with the pink salmon run. This year it’s July. “Beach crew is doing 18 hours a day,” said Garcia, “so they’re working hard. Really hard. It’s good. The work is here. We feel it.”

Two factors are making this year different, and they both have to do with how the processing plant interacts with hatcheries in the area. 

Hatcheries raise fish and release them into the wild. When some of those fish come back to spawn, the hatcheries catch what they need for brood stock, which is the eggs that they need to produce next year’s fish. “And then everything that sits in front of those net pens is what we catch for cost recovery,” said Pete Brantuas, the production manager at OBI.

Cost recovery is one way hatcheries fund their operations – by selling the rights to fish close to hatchery release sites, where adult salmon return to spawn.  “Before, different places were bidding on all these cost recovery contracts,” said Brantuas, “and we were getting outbid consistently when we were Icicle Seafoods. But now that Ocean Beauty and Icicle have joined together we are aggressively bidding for these contracts. It’s very nice.”

So that’s one reason this year is different. The plant has access to more hatchery fish than it did before Ocean Beauty and Icicle merged into OBI Seafoods in 2020. The other reason is that the three hatcheries that OBI contracted with this summer all had their chum salmon return simultaneously.

“It’s a complete anomaly for me,” said Brantuas. “It’s just been constant shock at what’s going on.”

It’s a cascade effect. If the fish all show up at the hatcheries at the same time, then that means they all show up at OBI at the same time. And so instead of a steady slow stream of chum, you get what Brantuas shows me in the storage tanks.

“A giant pile of fish!” said Brantuas. “It gets your attention.”

OBI hopes to process all its hatchery chum by the beginning of August. Meanwhile, the pink salmon are coming, and the coho behind them. Workers are expecting a long push – and some good money – through the summer.