Seafood processors in Southeast Alaska are struggling to get a bumper crop of fresh fish to Lower 48 markets due to a reduction in Alaska...

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JUNEAU, Alaska — Seafood processors in Southeast Alaska are struggling to get a bumper crop of fresh fish to Lower 48 markets due to a reduction in Alaska Airlines freight capacity that is expected to continue through the rest of the year.

“Just at the time that there is interest in wild fish, we can’t get it on the airline,” said Tim Ryan, Sitka Sound Seafoods plant manager.

Shipping fresh fish has always been a conundrum for remote Alaska, and especially for Southeast Alaska, where there are significantly fewer flights a day than in Anchorage.

Now it’s even tougher.

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As part of a much broader restructuring of the company, Alaska Airlines is phasing out its old fleet of nine 737-200 freight planes and recently replaced two such planes that ran multiple-stop “milk runs” up and down the coast with passenger planes that are more reliable but have less cargo space.

The company has ordered one new freight plane, with 33 percent more cargo space than the 200 series planes, but it won’t arrive until February.

Also, the company is retrofitting four additional planes to a passenger-cargo “combi” configuration. The entire project costs $15 million and will be finished in early 2007.

That’s little comfort to seafood producers who are trying to strike while Alaska salmon is hot.

“We’ve been less than reliable in providing freight capacity this year,” said Matt Yerbic, managing director of cargo for Alaska Airlines. “Everyone is out pushing as hard as they can. The demand has gone up dramatically.”

The airline has even recruited a postal mail plane to help transport fish to Seattle this year.

“We’re trying to enhance the supply chain,” Yerbic said. “We know it’s important to the state of Alaska.”

Many Southeast Alaska communities are shipping 10 percent to 15 percent more fish than usual by airplane this year. Juneau is shipping about 30 percent more fish than in previous years, at about 20,000 to 30,000 pounds a day, he said.

“Frankly, we can’t put enough capacity on some days to satisfy the demand,” Yerbic said.

In Juneau, seafood plants are having less trouble getting their fish to market.

“I’ve been able to move our product. Not to say that you don’t go home sweating a little bit,” said Mike Erickson, owner of Alaska Glacier Seafoods in Auke Bay.

In Sitka and Petersburg, seafood-plant operators are frustrated with the reduction in freight capacity, which is causing them to sell more fish frozen for a lower price.