Alaska salmon can't be beat

Posted: Friday, June 27, 2003

The Alaskan fish business is marvelously resilient. When we think it is dying, it comes back stronger than ever. Even farm-raised salmon is having a tough time in the marketplace compared with wild Alaska stocks. The farm salmon use artificial coloring chemicals in the pellet food. This has turned away many customers, because the chemicals may cause retinal damage.

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

Last winter, we all thought there wouldn't be any buyers around, because of the closure of Ward's Cove, particularly the plant at Excursion Inlet. But look out at Juneau harbor, at the fish buying boats at anchor, especially on the weekends, before the Monday opening of the gill net season. In Taku and Lynn Canal we now have tenders from Ocean Beauty, which has taken over the plant at Excursion Inlet. Also, Petersburg Fisheries and Norquest are here. Pelican or Kake Seafoods and Smoky Seafoods of Bellingham, Wash., have tenders.

There is also a fairly new company called Icy Straits Seafoods, which has a fleet of about 35 gillnetters, one seiner and one tender. The owner of the company is Hank Baumgart, who used to be a gillnetter and a year-round resident of Juneau. He now spends most of the year at Bellingham. He is also a partner in a firm located in British Columbia that processes herring from San Francisco, Sitka and Canada.

Baumgart processes his fish at the local Taku Smokeries Plant. His gillnet fishermen dress the sockeyes they catch so that the quality is tops. The sockeye are frozen and then shipped. This is different from the way a lot of processors operate, who ship their salmon fresh by van or airplane to markets in the Lower 48. Baumgart sells his sockeyes to companies that smoke the finished product. They don't need a fresh supply and prefer them frozen so that they can operate at any time during the year.

He also freezes the chum salmon, which are sold for steaking and other portion-controlled products. It's always harder to market the chum salmon. The gillnetters catch at least as many chums as sockeyes. Without the chum salmon eggs, it would be a loss to handle the fish alone.

Baumgart has invested in two fabulous pieces of machinery to process the chum salmon eggs. One squeezes the eggs from the skein. Normally, this is a time-consuming effort by a fish-house worker, to rub the skein against a wire screen, which separates the mucous-like lining from the individual egg.

The other machine is truly unbelievable. Traditionally, when you are processing salmon eggs, after stirring them for a few minutes in a brine solution, you place the eggs in trays to let them dry for several hours or overnight. This is a slow process and requires a real clean-up effort at the end of each cycle. With this machine, the eggs are agitated on thin plastic plates on a moving conveyor belt. The eggs are dried in minutes instead of hours. After coming off the machine, the eggs immediately are boxed in one-kilogram containers. Most are sent to Japan, but Baumgart has a growing number of American accounts. Watch out farm fish, Alaska salmon can't be beat.

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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