Following a pilot test in September, leaders from four treaty-fishing tribes, are satisfied that they can meet the waste water requirements of the city of Bingen and Washington Department of Ecology for a fish processing facility along the Columbia River.
FishCo, a corporation established in 2010 by the four tribes (Umatilla, Yakama, Warm Springs and Nez Perce), hired a Bellingham, Wash., seafood-processing company called American-Canadian Fisheries to conduct the test for heading and gutting fall chinook salmon at the 8,000 square-foot facility constructed in 2006 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Operating under a 10-day permit from the Washington DOE, American-Canadian followed parameters set out by the City of Bingen to see if waste water from the facility could be handled by the city’s wastewater treatment pipeline to a treatment facility in White Salmon.
Harris Teo, FishCo manager during the test period, said all went well.
“Some feared that the FishCo processing would overwhelm the (wastewater) facility but I can say that didn’t occur,” Teo said.
Jan Brending, administrator for the City of Bingen, said she expects a meeting in November with FishCo representatives and consultants to discuss the results of the pilot test.
“We haven’t seen any results back from that yet,” she said about the pilot test. “I believe CRITFC (Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission) and FishCo and the two cities will meet and talk with the consultants about what steps we need to take next to move the process forward.”
Although Teo said there appeared to be no impacts to the waste water line, Brending wasn’t so adamant.
“There will be impacts to the treatment plant, but we don’t know how significant they will be,” she said. “The (pilot test) studies are being done to verify the findings made in various reports.”
The findings from reports and the pilot test, Brending said, will be used to determine a monthly rate, any initial connection fee, and possible improvement needs for the treatment plant in White Salmon.
In addition to an agreement with Bingen, FishCo needs to obtain a permit from the Washington DOE to operate the facility with full capacity next fall.
Meanwhile, there’s enthusiasm on the river.
“The fishermen are really excited. They’re saying ‘Finally we have activity at FishCo’,” said Kat Brigham, FishCo secretary as well as secretary for the Umatilla Tribes’ governing body. “Now that we have the test run we can sit down and talk about what needs to be done, and establish a schedule so we can start processing in the fall when we have the largest catch.”
American-Canadian, which processes roughly 6 million pounds of seafood annually, purchased fish from Columbia River (fall chinook as well as steelhead and coho) from tribal fishers and from wholesale fish buyers for the test. American-Canadian has been buying salmon along the Columbia River for years, Teo said.
“We wanted to work with somebody with proven experience with processing,” Teo said. “We didn’t want to purchase salmon by ourselves this time. American-Canadian processed the fish they purchased and owned the fish from beginning to end. They bought from tribal harvesters and took the fish back to Bellingham after it was processed.”
Adhering to the test guidelines from Bingen, about 16,000 pounds (about 880 fish averaging 18 pounds apiece) were processed each day for four days in the first week.
“It doesn’t sound like much, but that’s what the city asked for,” Teo said.
It normally would take an American-Canadian crew of 12-14 persons about an hour and a half to “head and gut” 880 salmon, but it took 2-3 hours on that first day because FishCo didn’t have adequate equipment.
“It took a little longer than in their facility because we didn’t have the same processing lines,” Teo said. “They brought as much equipment as they had available, but we still had to use a makeshift line.”
In the second week, Bingen and the DOE asked for 30,000 pounds of fish for at least two days in a row. Teo said FishCo had hoped to run 30,000 through for four days, but that many fish were not available.
“It all depends on the harvest and the number we’re able to buy,” Teo said. “That second week we had one day with 30,400 pounds.”
Teo believes that when FishCo is up and operating with proper equipment and trained tribal members on the processing line, the facility should be able to process 78,000 to 100,000 pounds of fish per day, which he said is the industry average.
The facility would not run every day all day, and the processing would follow the harvest seasons.
“It would probably be about 12 weeks out of the fall season and we’d scale back in the spring and summer,” he said.
In addition to tribally caught and processed salmon that could be branded, marketed and sold, the facility expects to process ceremonial and subsistence salmon for the tribes’ members.
“Tribes are paying someone to process ceremonial fish right now,” Teo said. “We hope to be able to process those fish also.”
Teo said FishCo eventually will be purchasing fish directly from tribal fishers as well as product from fish buyers.
“A concern for FishCo is that we have an adequate supply of fish for a viable operation,” he said. “It is not the intent to take away from the buyers’ operations. We have a buying and processing plan in the works right now to work with fish buyers on the Columbia River.”
Overall, Teo said there were no real surprises.
“What we were trying to do with the city is fill their waste water line with as much as we could for a worst case scenario on a large run,” Teo said. “When we did that, we believe there was no impact to the city’s facility.”
At the request of the tribes, the Corps of Engineers built the facility for $4.2 million in 2006, but it took four years before the tribes came together as a non-profit corporation. It was the first time that the four Columbia River treaty fishing tribes have partnered in an economic development initiative.
In August of 2010, FishCo elected Virgil Lewis, Yakama, president; Ryan Smith, Warm Springs, vice-president; Brigham as secretary; and Larry Green, Nez Perce, sergeant at arms.
The facility lacks line-processing equipment, but does include a blast freezer, refrigeration unit and regular freezer, and commercial grade ice machines. (This year the facility provided about 2.5 million pounds of ice to tribal fishers along the river.)
A feasibility study completed in 2007 projected that the plant, which would be FDA food-safety compliant, could initially buy whole fish from fishers and sell headed and gutted fish to a primarily Northwest market. Later on, the plant could add products like fillets. That is still the goal.
As initially envisioned, the facility would be operated for and by tribal fishers. According to planning documents, as much as 800,000 pounds – that’s about 40,000 20-pound salmon – could be processed in the first year of the facility.