Inside the processing plant at Alaska Glacier Seafood (AGS), plant manager Nick Segal held out a slimy, gelatinous sea creature about the size and shape of a pickle. The cylindrical bottom-dweller has little bumps — like nascent horns — running up and down its body.
Brown and alien-like, it’s not exactly appetizing. But despite appearances, Segal says sea cucumbers are delicious, especially the skin.
“It actually tastes really good, kind of like a mild mushroom,” he said. “It goes well in a lot of soups and stews, stuff like that.”
You won’t find sea cucumbers on many Alaska dinner tables, but this time of year, the animal is a boon for fishermen and processors. Prices for their skins will sell for between $20 and $30 per pound this season, Segal said, making it one of AGS’ most expensive products on a per pound basis.
As sea cucumber divers delivered their catch after an opening this week, the Empire visited AGS to understand this strange and unfamiliar animal.
Processing a fickle pickle
If the AGS plant is a human body, a group of about 20 workers operates its heart — the cutting boards.
Sea cucumbers anywhere from 4 inches to over a foot long are pinned with nails to the top of vertical cutting boards. Four plant workers in smocks and hair nets tend each board, taking a question mark-shaped razor to the sea cucumber’s “belly.”
“He’s basically splitting them down the belly,” Segal explained.
It’s the first step in processing sea cucumbers, which are notoriously difficult for seafood companies to deal with.
The sea cucumbers curl up after the cut is made. Inside, a white meat gleams. Workers will then take a different knife, one that looks like a paint scraper, to the insides.
They’ll separate the meat from the skin in one long piece. Meat cut in half or in chunks won’t be sold as top grade, so they try to be careful.
“Cukes,” as they’re known, perish easily if the amount of salt in their water is changed. Dead sea cucumbers get thrown out.
Cooking them whole can result in the animal exploding, so that has to be done carefully. AGS cooks a small portion of their catch whole, but most if it is seperated into meat and skins.
The skins are then boiled down for about an hour before being buried in salt for a few days to a week.
For 100 pounds of sea cucumbers, “You’ll end up with about 25 pounds of meat and 15 pounds of skin,” Segal said.
The whole process takes a lot of time and manpower. The AGS plant can typically work through 200,000 pounds of salmon a day during the summer. Its output for sea cucumbers is about a tenth of that at around 15,000-18,000 pounds a day.
Lucrative and dangerous
While workers dealt with the week’s haul, fisherman Travis Easlon pulled up in his boat the F/V Spryden to deliver his catch.
With 2,000 pounds on board, Easlon had filled his quota limit for the two day fishing opening. Like many fisheries, he explained that sea cucumber fishing is both lucrative and dangerous.
The big key to having success is determination. Easlon has gathered his allotted quota every week this year, so he’s off to a good start. But just finding sea cucumbers can be demoralizing.
“You’re going to get your wind knocked out of your sails a lot when you don’t find them. Over and over and over,” Easlon said.
To find his catch, the crew will pull up to a beach the night before fishing, drop an underwater camera down on a cable and let it drift along the bottom.
“That gives us an idea where they’re at and we’ll mark them out on maps,” Easlon said.
It’s important to find sea cucumbers at the right depth. Find them too deep, and dive time will be cut down substantially. Nitrogen, which is toxic in certain levels, increases the deeper a diver goes.
“You try and stay in the 40-foot range, it just depends where they’re at,” Easlon said.
Easlon and his fishing partner will dive for cukes while a deckhand stays on board to process the catch. Regulations limit the dive time to seven hours during the day. Easlon said it’s a “chess game” to use as much of that time as he can for actually harvesting cukes.
Unlike other fisheries, Easlon said sea cucumber fishermen can pay off their overhead a little quicker. The amount of money you can make in a season is high compared to the cost of a permit.
Easlon bought his permit seven years ago for $15,000. He hopes to earn that several times over in gross earnings this year.
“In a season, if you do 12,000 pounds at $5 a pound, that’s a good amount,” Easlon said. “The prices for a permit should be more but they’re not.”
‘It’s not hamburgers’
Working the sea cucumber season allows AGS to stay operating during what typically is a down month for the company, president and founder Mike Erickson said.
“It stretches our season out five or seven weeks, depending on how they’re caught,” Erickson said.
They keep a processing staff of 75-90 for the season. This year the quota is set at 1.5 million pounds. AGS hopes to process between 300,000 and 500,000 pounds of that catch.
Most of that quota is down near Ketchikan, a few days run away from Juneau. AGS sends boats down to buy sea cucumbers. But transporting them for a few days can pose problems. If salinity levels are off in a ship’s hold by more than a few parts per thousand, sea cucumbers can die.
“You have to be very careful with it. … They’re a very sensitive critter, for sure,” Erickson said
Erickson said he sells most of the skins to Asian markets. They’ll send a “fair amount” of the meat to East Coast markets, but much of that is to high-end restaurants in Asian American communities.
Sometimes the skins are ground into capsules and used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat anything from cancer to fertility.
Erickson doesn’t know if or when American tastes will come around to sea cucumbers. He says he’s seen bottom-shelf seafood become delicacies in a matter of years. He compares it to black cod, which has risen in price in recent years.
“The problem with it is that the aesthetics of a cucumber skin is not attractive. … It’s not hamburger, it’s not steak, but it’s really delicious,” Erickson said.
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.