Alaska fines Bristol Bay salmon processor nearly $470,000 for environmental permitting violations

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has fined a seafood processing plant in Bristol Bay $467,469 for violations dating back to 2017 that include discharging millions of pounds more fish waste into the Naknek River than they were allowed to dump.

The Silver Bay Seafoods plant on the Naknek River also allowed a vessel in 2021 to dump bloody wastewater from the catch into waters near the dock, violating state requirements, according to a 37-page consent agreement signed Monday by the company and Alaska officials.

Silver Bay Seafoods, operating several seafood processing facilities in Alaska, has taken steps to correct the problem, a company spokeswoman said.

“Silver Bay Seafoods voluntarily implemented corrective actions before the settlement was finalized,” said Abby Fredrick, a spokeswoman with the company. “We are confident those measures will ensure compliance for this season and beyond.”

The plant is located about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage. It’s about 5 miles upstream from the mouth of the Naknek River. The company has been permitted by the state to dump 10 million pounds of fish into the river, through an outfall line, after it’s ground into tiny pieces. But too much waste can hurt the river system, the agency said in a statement Wednesday.

The penalty comes just as another massive salmon fishing season is expected to soon heat up soon in Bristol Bay. Fishermen and processors are getting ready for possible record-setting run of 75 million sockeye salmon, the state said.

The fine appears to be the largest ever issued by the Alaska Division of Water, which includes past violations by the oil and gas and mining industries, said Randy Bates, director of the division.

“This is overall, to the best of our knowledge, the highest penalty assessed to a permit holder,” Bates said in an interview.

Silver Bay knowingly disregarded the state’s permit terms, Bates said.

Bates said the size of the fine is based on a calculation under the guidelines of the Environmental Protection Agency. Much of it addresses the economic advantage the processor received from the violations over competitors, he said.

The penalty is the result of negotiations between the company and the Division of Water, Bates said.

Silver Bay Seafoods has grown quickly since opening its first facility in Sitka in 2007. One owner is StarKist, the US canned tuna company, according to Alaska business records.

An inspection by the Department of Environmental Conservation in 2021 found multiple violations at the Naknek plant, including fish waste that was not ground into small enough pieces, the agency said in a statement.

In 2020, Silver Bay Seafoods illegally dumped about 5 million pounds of fish waste into the Naknek River, exceeding its permitted limit by about 50%, the state said in its statement.

And in 2017, the seafood plant illegally dumped about 3 million pounds of waste into the Naknek River, about 30% more than it was permitted to discharge. The company claimed that was “due to the unprecedented amount of salmon we processed (that) year,” according to documents associated with the agreement.

The agreement lays out steps Silver Bay must take to prevent similar waste in the future.

They include contracting with transport vessels to carry extra waste away from the river, and providing better communication with captains about restrictions against dumping fishing wastewater into the water at the dock.

Bates said the penalty should discourage other seafood processors from violating the law.

“If you look at Bristol Bay’s record runs, there’s a lot of money being made by fishermen and processors,” Bates said. “I don’t know how this fine compares to the profit lines of companies, but we need them to comply with the conditions of the permits to protect the environment.”

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