Good & Ugly

Northern Panhandle gets a stake in a prized delicacy

Posted: Sunday, October 30, 2005

An odd and decidedly unfishy smell assails the nose of the unsuspecting visitor to the Alaska Glacier Seafoods plant in Auke Bay in late fall.

Call it essence of sea cucumber.

For the uninitiated, the slimy, pudgy sea cucumber may not seem like an appetizing form of seafood.

But sea cucumbers - actually animals - are eaten for subsistence in Alaska and they are a prized delicacy in Asia.

Juneau resident Kristin Cieciel, who studied sea cucumbers for her master's thesis, just cooked one up last week.

"I sautéed it in butter. It's good," said Cieciel, a researcher at the National Marine Fisheries Service's Auke Bay Lab.

About three days a week, from October to December, about 30 workers at the Auke Bay seafood plant scramble to turn boatloads of giant red sea cucumbers into frozen product that is sent on barges to the Lower 48.

Alaska Glacier Seafoods is the only sea cucumber processor north of Sitka in the Panhandle. Its workers will likely process about 150,000-plus pounds of raw sea cucumbers harvested by Southeast Alaska divers this winter, says plant co-owner Mike Erickson.

Divers and plant workers put the cukes through what, by weight, may be one of the more labor-intensive fisheries in the Panhandle.

On a good day, a diver can collect about $3,000 worth of sea cucumbers from the ocean floor, Haines diver Norm Hughes said.

"You have to pick them up by hand," Hughes explained.

Like their vegetable namesakes, sea cucumbers retain a lot of water. Divers "poke" them with razors in order to drain them. Live specimens can easily contain 3 to 4 pounds of water, Erickson said.

The plant's employees then work long hours - up to 16-hour days - to turn those cukes into food.

About 58 percent of the weight entering the Auke Bay plant makes it out as food products, Erickson said.

The plant produces large boxes of dried sea cucumber skins and vacuum bags of meat.

The rest of the cukes - intestines, gonads, etc. - are discarded.

Erickson got into the sea cucumber business about four years ago. Some local divers had approached his company about buying sea cucumbers, he said.

Most of the other plants that buy sea cucumbers from divers were far away, in Ketchikan and Sitka.

Since Erickson began experimenting with sea cucumbers, he has expanded his operation and is now unleashing a steady stream on Asian markets, both abroad and along the U.S. East Coast.

Having the product line creates worker income at a slow time of year in Southeast Alaska fisheries, Erickson said.

The sea cucumber fishery has had its ups and downs, but by comparison, it is producing more profit than Southeast Alaska's king crab fishery, Erickson said.

The cukes are selling for about $2 per pound this year, about 20 cents less than last year. Generally, the price for Southeast Alaska cukes has inched up since 1996, when they were about $1.30 per pound.

A recent visit to the Auke Bay seafood operation revealed workers slitting open the wet, slippery sea cucumbers and hanging them on boards. They used metal spatulas to scrape out light pink, seemingly odorless meat.

"It tastes like clams," Hughes said. Others compare it to calamari.

On Thursday, workers stood around a large table, cutting and sorting the meat into higher and lower grades.

The multicolored cuke skins were lowered into two large boilers in another room - the source of the plant's mysterious odor.

Ernest Guldin, head chef, cooks the skins for about an hour and salts them for a week to try to take out as much moisture as possible.

The skins turn an indeterminate dark color and shrink to about half their size. They are mainly used in soup, or for medicinal purposes, Guldin said.

Guldin has invented his own cuke recipe. He made soup out of the broth he creates by boiling the skins. "It was pretty good," he said.

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