Salmon swim in a world without borders

Posted: Wednesday, May 14, 2008

My son, Allan, was surprised to find a one-pound package of wild caught salmon at Wal-Mart on a recent visit to Troy, Ala. It was a boneless fillet with the skin removed. He surmised it was pink or chum. The price was $3.98.

The label said, "Product of China." That gave Allan a jolt, because he thought the salmon was probably caught by Alaska fishermen. We later learned that the source was either Alaska or the Japanese island of Hokkaido where there is a major run of chum salmon.

The salmon business has always had an international character. Prior to World War II, king salmon were shipped to Europe for the lox trade and Great Britain has always been a major market for canned sockeye salmon. In more recent times, hundreds of millions of pounds of sockeye have been shipped to Japan, and salmon eggs have gone to Japan and to Europe.

Last Friday, over a cup of coffee at Heritage, Allan and I had a fascinating talk with one of the major fish buyers in Southeast Alaska.

His name is Edward Bahrt. He runs the Pelican Cold Storage under a lease from Kake Tribal Corp.

Bahrt was born in 1955 in Sitka. His first job was with a good friend of mine, Dean Kayler, of Swiftsure Fisheries in Seattle. Bahrt goes back a long way in Pelican. His dad and uncle helped build the cold storage when construction started in 1939.

Last season, he bought troll-caught silver and king salmon and also had packers at Taku and Lynn Canal. He produced about a million pounds of dressed head-off and gutted pinks and chums.

It's miraculous how effective the transportation system has become. When Bahrt needs to make a shipment he contacts an ocean-going barge from Alaska Marine Lines that makes regular runs between Seattle and the Anchorage area. The barge comes into Lisianski Inlet, ties up, and with a giant forklift, positions an empty van on the dock. In an hour's time Bahrt's crew fills it up with pinks or chums packed in 1,000-pound cardboard totes. Each van holds about 40,000 pounds.

The destination is Qingdao, on the southern coast of China. This same van goes all the way to China, although transferred by Alaska Marine Lines to an ocean going ship in Seattle.

While Bahrt sells his pinks and chums to the Chinese, some American processors have their own affiliated plants in China. The finished product goes to stores across the United States and Europe. Spain is a big market. Spain even imports headed and gutted pinks and chums from Alaska and reprocesses them in the same manner as the Chinese.

Although not as involved in such the grand international scheme of things, I remember when just starting in the fish business in 1963, I had taken over my father's company begun on the Juneau docks in 1927, that I made some shipments of king salmon to Paris, France.

The buyer himself visited Juneau, and he told me how during World War II, he had led a harrowing life spent entirely in France, fleeing the Nazis and the Gestapo, because of his Jewish faith. He said he had to use four or five different passports.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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