Over sixty million sockeye salmon returned to Bristol Bay in 2018, 10 million more than predicted. Most head up Nushagak Bay … the most in the world. Over 40 million were harvested, close to the all-time record of 44.3 million. Shore based processing plants are required to send the product to market. These processing plants must comply with State of Alaska Water Quality Standards, administered by The State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
My first encounter with this remarkable region was in the mid-80’s. I was District Engineer for the State DEC, in charge of western Alaska. I also kayaked the world famous Wood-Tikchik State Park. The largest state park in the country at 1.6 million acres. One of the highlights of the trip was being flown into the park in a Grumman Goose by Phil Bingman.
The same Grumman Goose recently flew me on engineering inspections in Nushagak Bay. I am now owner of NorthRim Engineering, designing fish processing plants to meet DEC requirements. The Grumman Goose is now being flown by Jerry Ball, owner of Freshwater Adventures & Alaska’s Best Seafood. Jerry bought the Goose from Phil’s son, Lester Bingman.
Jerry Ball is part of a long family tradition in Nushagak Bay, starting with his father Albert. Albert Ball left Aberdeen, Washington in 1931 to homestead on Lake Aleknagik- he was only 16 years old. Albert started a family flying business, Western Alaska Airlines. Albert had 5 boys that became pilots; Newt, Albert Jr., Larry, Jerry, & Gary. Some of the boys met with tragic aircraft accidents. Jerry is the last surviving son. During our recent landing in the Goose, Jerry shouted out the landing checklist that is stamped in a metal plate on the door. He said this is what keeps him alive- I was all in favor of it!
Jerry runs Alaska’s Best Seafood fish processing plant, located in Ekuk. The processing plant employs 40 workers, around the clock during fishing season. The workers process the fish for quick delivery to market. The fish waste is ground up & pumped out 700 feet into the current of Nushagak Bay. A recent engineering inspection confirmed that it was constructed & operating per DEC regulations. Over a million pounds of fish has been processed this summer. The larger Ekuk Fisheries neighboring plant has processed over 8 million pounds.
Jerry is prepared to double the size of the processing plant. During my recent engineering inspections in Nushagak Bay I observed an energetic group of people in good spirits due to the successful season. I struck up a conversation with a Yupik fisherman from New Stuyahok, while waiting at the Dillingham airport. He stated that the residents of New Stuyahok, on the Nushagak River, were ambitious, proud fishermen, and had a great commercial fishing season. A chartered jet was being loaded with Alaska’s Best Seafood salmon at the Dillingham airport. A good turnaround time for landing, loading salmon, & takeoff is one hour. The jet headed to Anchorage.