ANCHORAGE - A Kodiak-based fisherman-turned-scientist has discovered fish shipped fresh from Alaska doesn't always reach its destination that way.
Mark Buckley, managing partner of Digital Observer LLC, found one shipment of salmon heated up to 62 degrees before being sold to customers in the Midwest.
Buckley said his project, which involved tagging fish with computer-driven, waterproof temperature gauges, arose from a personal interest in the subject.
"It was always my observation that I never really knew what happened to my fish," Buckley told the Alaska Journal of Commerce. "I saw a discrepancy in the quality of the fish emerging from the nets and those that actually found their way onto the supermarket shelves. I saw the loss of markets to farmed fish, and I put two and two together."
Computerized sensors, called Smart Tags, were programmed with the names of the participating fishermen, processors, and distributors and attached to the fish with an electrician's zip tie. They were further programmed to take the fish's temperature every 30 minutes, Buckley said, and information was stored in a chip with 667 days of memory.
"What we found was that fish warm up at 36,000 feet," Buckley said.
Fish that left the processors were enclosed in bubble wrap and sealed in a wet-lock box with a handful of cold gel packs that act as coolant, he said. The more time fish spent at airports, the more likely it would heat up and degrade.
One shipment of salmon sat on the tarmac at a Chicago airport for 90 minutes in 80-degree heat and warmed to 62 degrees before cargo handlers placed the product in ice. By the time the distributor arrived to retrieve the salmon, it had cooled and the degradation went unnoticed.
Those increases can have a drastic effect on the quality, shelf life and overall marketability of the fish, said Bob Sullivan, president of Chicago-based Plitt Fish Co., a distributor of Alaska salmon who participated in the study.
Plitt sells fish to gourmet restaurants and delis. When an Alaska shipment is not up to standards, the fish is tossed out, he said.
"I've had purchasers take a look at some of my Alaska salmon and tell me that they are better off buying red snapper," Sullivan said.