Pacific Aquaculture’s harvest crew, from left to right, Terry Gallagher, Tony Chapa, Tony Wilson and Virgil Elwell.

Pacific Aquaculture’s harvest crew has moved 2M pounds of steelhead salmon in last four weeks

NESPELEM - While much of the world has slowed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that has taken a toll on the world economy, Pacific Aquaculture’s efforts have surged as the company has worked to continue to provide protein to America’s food chains.

That surge has been felt locally on the Colville Reservation: In a span of four weeks, finishing out the fiscal quarter, the Pacific Aquaculture harvest crew has moved a record 2 million pounds of steelhead salmon, pulling the salmon from their net pens on the Columbia River just east of Nespelem and shipping them out for processing.

Starting their mornings at 4 a.m. - in an attempt to beat the heat - the crew has averaged three truckloads each day (when previously, the crew averaged one with two occasionally).

“These guys have been busting their rear ends through the pandemic,” said Danielle Florenzen, Pacific Aquaculture. “We got listed as an essential business so things have not changed a lot, other than masking up and other health safety measures. With all the restaurants being closed, we did lose some of that business, but we are the busiest we have ever been.”

Through the pandemic, the harvest crew elected to work nearly every day; in truth, said Florenzen, the crew said all their summer plans - particularly rock concerts - had been cancelled, so what else could they do but work?

“They’ve really taken ownership over their positions,” said Florenzen.

Headed by veteran employee Tony Wilson, the crew is composed of Terry Gallagher, Virgil Elwell and Tony Chapa - all of whom are either tribal members or descendants.

And the work is tough, off-loading a ton of steelhead salmon at a time from a barge into large blue totes, filling those totes with ice and making them ready to ship.

The cause in the increase in work has been two-fold, said Florenzen.

Pacific Aquaculture’s parent company Pacific Seafood has historically got their products to customers through grocery stores and restaurants, but the pandemic saw wide-spread closure of restaurants. So, initially Pacific Seafood’s business slowed too. 

But Pacific Seafood quickly pivoted to delivering salmon and other protein sources to the tables of Americans through an online shopping portal:

The website reads, “Pacific Seafood has been a premium seafood supplier for over 75 years and now you can get our amazing selection of seafood delivered direct to you!

“We’ve curated a premium selection of seafood for you to choose from so you can share the healthiest protein on the planet with your family and friends!

“Our unique supply chain allows us to harvest our proteins direct from the source, whether that’s the clear blue waters of the Pacific, or the ice cold rivers of the Northwest. Our expert teams are busy harvesting, processing and packing our products daily for delivery right to your door.”

Second, the increased harvest has come from a change in Pacific Aquaculture’s husbandry practice.

As Pacific Aquaculture’s Chris Stice and Florenzen both explained the company has worked to move larger fish out of the water. In the increased water temperatures in the summer, the larger fish don’t do as well, becoming more susceptible to disease. As such, Pacific Aquaculture is working to move out as many large fish as possible and keep smaller fish that do better in warmer temperatures.

“Obviously, there was no planning with COVID-19. It just happened,” said Florenzen. “So the company said, let’s get creative and problem solve. The harvest crew hasn’t missed a beat with that.”

Pacific Aquaculture operates three individual net pen sites raising steelhead trout on the Columbia River on the Colville Reservation.

Along with other aquaculture operations, the company operates a hatchery in Shelton and rearing ponds on Boxley Creek near North Bend where steelhead are raised to fingerling age before being shipped to the company’s net pens on the Columbia River.

The company rears fish to six to eight pounds before shipping them out for processing. Final products are shipped to distribution centers across the western United States and Japan.

Since 2013, the company’s Columbia River operation has received certification for Best Aquaculture Practices from the Global Aquaculture Alliance, becoming the first fish farm in Washington with the certification. 

In 2015, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program issued a “Best Choice” rating for Pacific Aquaculture’s Columbia River Steelhead.

Previously, Pacific Seafood CEO Frank Dulcich noted the company pays the Colville Tribes’ a poundage-based royalty payment and an annual land lease.

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