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Friday, September 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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North Pacific seafood industry extends help to Gulf

Seattle Times staff reporter

The North Pacific seafood industry is shipping canned salmon to the hurricane-stricken Gulf Coast and plans to follow up by sending nets, gear, machinery and other aid to the extensively damaged shrimp fleets and processing operations.

At the same time, widespread destruction of Gulf oyster beds has created a surge in demand for Northwest oysters.

The aid effort was announced yesterday by United Fishermen of Alaska, which represents 31 fishing groups that include many Washington-based fishermen who work off Alaska.

"This week's Gulf hurricane could be next week's Alaska tidal wave," said Mark Vinsel, executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska.

A new nonprofit organization has been formed for fishermen and processors who want to help in the aid effort, according to Marc Jones, a fishing-industry consultant who is helping to launch the group.

Ballard-based Trident Seafoods, the Northwest's largest seafood processor, has delivered 1,600 cases of canned pink salmon worth $50,000 to Louisiana and expects to raise a "six-figure" donation from employees, company matches and other fund raising.

"I know what it's like to rebuild," said Chuck Bundrant, Trident's chairman and founder. He said he started working in Seward, Alaska, in 1964 just after a tidal wave smashed into the town.

The Gulf Coast seafood industry has more small boats and small processors than the North Pacific, which annually has produced the nation's biggest seafood harvests.

Some fleets around New Orleans and the Mississippi coast have been destroyed by the hurricane and many lacked insurance, said Eddie Gordon, executive director of Wild American Shrimp, which represents shrimp fishermen in eight Southeastern states.

But other fleets west of New Orleans survived, and some are already back fishing. "Their biggest problem is the sudden surge in diesel prices," Gordon said.

The oyster industry there, which had produced about 40 percent of the nation's supply, is in worse shape. Beds were severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina and subsequent pollution. Restoring them is expected to take years.

The loss of supply has pushed prices up by about 10 percent, said John Sackton, president of Seafood.Com, an online industry-news service.

"I think the oyster situation is just going to get worse, and people are just going to have to get used to living with fewer oysters," Sackton said.

Robin Downey, executive director of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association, said that even before the hurricane, Pacific producers were having a hard time keeping up with demand. Now, they are fielding even more calls from buyers.

Outside of the South, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska produce most of the nation's oysters. Washington produced more than 77 million pounds, worth more than $57.5 million, in 2003, making it by far the largest producer of any West Coast state.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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