Processing fish is a tough business

Posted: Friday, February 07, 2003

What a marvelous business is fishing and fish processing. Mike Erickson is the president of Alaska Glacier Seafoods. The plant is located in a 6,000-square-foot space behind Western Auto in Lemon Creek. In addition to the processing area, the plant contains blast freezers that can freeze 15,000 to 18,000 pounds per day.

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

My dad, who started in the fish-buying business in 1927, said in good times and lean that there will always be a fish business because people have to eat. Erickson is an optimist. He thinks his business is doing well, and the future looks good. In the old days communication between fishermen and plant was by radio. Now it is by cell phone. This is a tough, competitive business. A fisherman who has halibut to sell will call Glacier Seafoods and other buyers, to ask what is the price. Erickson has seven or eight main accounts in the western United States, who buy 90 percent of what he produces. So he calls them to see if he can make a deal that will net enough to pay the fishermen, his processing and transportation costs and make a profit.

Erickson unloads his fish at the university dock at the Fisherman's Terminal in downtown Juneau. He has a 20-tons-per-day icemaker there. One of his best accounts is Costco, with destinations in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah. For Costco, Erickson has a crew of five who fillet and fletch the halibut, leaving about 58 percent recovery from the whole weight. Last year he produced about 300,000 pounds of fillets. In addition, he ships whole halibut fresh and iced. He sends the product in refrigerated vans by ferry to Skagway, where it is transferred into vans that are hauled down the Alaskan Highway to markets from Vancouver to Los Angeles. Last year Glacier Seafoods bought about 1.3 million pounds of halibut. In addition it bought salmon, black cod - which is frozen and shipped to Seattle and then to Japan, and king crab, which is shipped live to markets in the Western United States. Tanner crab is butchered and frozen and the sections are shipped to Japan. The total catch comes to approximately 3 1/2 million pounds. That's a lot of fish. Fishermen are paid the best way, which is by check within 12 hours of unloading. So naturally financing is required because his accounts are billed for payment in seven to 30 days.

Mike is hoping to build a new plant next to the ferry dock in Auke Bay, and to have it open for the 2004 season. My prediction is that if he is successful this will become one of the leading cold storage and fresh fish plants in Alaska.

He and I discussed one matter on which we agreed. Much of the wanton- waste law is unfair because much of the quality of hatchery fish is so poor that there is no market for it. This is particularly true of the chum salmon from this area. So it would be better for all if the fishermen and fish processors were able to strip the valuable roe and throw the salmon back in the water to serve as food all along the chain of life. By forcing fishermen and processors to keep the carcasses, the cost of business goes up, and loads of chum salmon pile up in Seattle cold storages, where no one wants to can them or even to use them for bait. The price of eggs for the fishermen goes down because the cost of processing carcasses has to be deducted.

The tanner crab season opens Feb. 15, and Glacier Seafoods is ready.

Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau. He can be reached at 586-1655.

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