Realities of keeping salmon fresh and ready for market

Posted: Wednesday, November 05, 2003

I found the article "Fisheries group researches impoundment" from the Juneau Empire to be most intriguing. Since 1995, we have been keeping our net-caught wild salmon alive. Since we were making short-duration sets to ensure all fish came aboard alive in the event we caught a fish we had to release, keeping salmon alive seemed like a pretty "cool" concept.

Using 100 hung fathoms of a 4- by 60-inch mesh net and making very short "sets," we avoid most mortalities. We use one or two 3-inch Honda pumps to keep them alive and "happy," depending on the amount of fish. Our boat is fiberglass, 37 feet long by 11 feet wide, and has four tanks for live fish, plus a middle section for ice and icing any fish that die.

The issue of feeding might be an issue with species like coho, which may still be feeding at time of capture, but for species like chums, sockeye and pinks, no problem. Already in the beginnings of their terminal stage, they do not require, nor would they feed - no food in the gut when they are butchered, nothing to affect the quality of the resulting flesh and caviar - perfection. Something we learned about pinks this season was, after resting in the live tanks overnight, believe it or not, all the feed was fully digested and they were as clean as a whistle.

While farm salmon may not be high on the list of favorite subjects, it's what they do with their fish when they process them and how they do that is an extremely important subject for a brighter future in our wild salmon fisheries. New technology is backing up what and how we do to ensure when we kill the fish, it is done right. But it all begins with the live holding and/or "ponding" of the fish. The technique of first resting/ponding and then killing a fish instantly with a sharp blow to the head is called "percussive stunning." There are also new techniques that immerse the rested live fish into minus 3- to minus 5-degree Centigrade water for 35 to 40 seconds to achieve the same result, all part of the modern phenomena of live wild fish handling technology and perfect quality flesh and caviar.

We once held 17 pinks alive onboard our boat in the live tanks for 42 days. One died as a result of net trauma after a week, but the rest did just fine. Occasionally, towards the end, one would die off as a natural result of over-maturity, but we released most of them into the harbor to go and spawn, so "how long is too long?"

This summer, we had a CBC Radio Food personality out with us for a day. It was more than likely that by the time he was able to come up there would be no more pinks to catch. We kept 30 live pinks from the two weeks previous fishing and kept them alive and "happy" with the use of one of the pumps. One died and we released five live into the harbor, as they were too mature to ship to market (it was already very late in the season).

For the folks we sell all our salmon to, there is no too long within reason. So long as they were harvested alive and fully rested, then killed, bled and chilled they are so struck with the quality they will not accept any other quality of salmon. We have to kill and process the fish ourselves onboard, and then have them off-loaded and shipped south in totes of ice, but with three days guaranteed in rigor, even with our pinks, this is no problem.

On top of the quality live wild salmon offers, plus the ability to "pace" what and when the market needs, there is the caviar to consider. Like Sissy Babich (Northern Keta) in Juneau, we can rub caviar from our sockeye and from the pinks; it, too, is the very finest quality.

While I've talked about pinks, this works the same for sockeye. It is our hope that this bit of information will be useful to those fishers/processors in Alaska and the people questioning/looking at the possibilities for the future.

• Fred Hawkshaw is a fisherman who lives in Prince Rupert, B.C.



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