The future of commercial salmon processing will go online in Norway later this year when the machines take over a plant just north of the Arctic Circle.
If the operation proves successful – and there is every indication it will – Alaska should get ready to see yet another radical change in the labor-intensive business that helped shape the territory and fire the push for Statehood in the 1950s.
Norway’s Cermaq AS is now finishing up construction on what it calls the world’s first “Smart Factory” for salmon processing. The Oslo-based company is a diversified, Mitsubishi-owned entity that raises, processes and sells salmon.
Its new 86,000-square-foot plant at Storskjæret on the island of Vandve just above the Arctic Circle will take fish processing out of the hands of people and put it under the control of machines.
BAADER, a German company that produces food processing machinery, is outfitting the new plant in cooperation with Code IT As, an Oslo software company.
“We are responsible for the entire flow from live fish entering the plant up to packing with the new high-speed packing grader from BAADER,” company spokesman Robert Focke is quoted saying on the company’s website.
“The flow is controlled all the way from the holding pens via ‘stun & bleed’ further to the gutting machines where the salmon is gutted, weighed and photographed for inside quality grading. All registered information then follows each individual fish and makes it traceable until it reaches the customer. BAADER’s new ‘Speed feeder’ ensures efficient distribution to each of the new BA144 gutting machines and up to our new packing grader with a capacity of up to 160 fish/minute. When the plant is completed…it will be an important showcase for BAADER.”
Alaska fish processors face some hurdles in upgrading to similar systems, said Anchorage economist Gunnar Knapp, the retired director of the University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research.
But he has no doubts machines and robots will soon replace people on what has long been called the state’s “slime line.”
“Whether it’s three years, 10 years or 20 years,” Knapp said, “the era of people doing mindless, repetitive things is coming to an end. There is a lot of automation already.”
Knapp is a global authority on fisheries. He has toured fish processing plants in Scandinavian where there are already more people monitoring machinery than people up to their elbows in blood and guts on the processing line.
There are places, he said, where a handful of people take the place of a dozen. He envisions Alaska fish plants with 500 people taking the place of 5,000. Such a shift would mark an acceleration in a 100-year trend.
Dozens of salmon canneries once dotted Alaska’s coast, but they have increasingly consolidated over the decades and in recent times shifted steadily from canning fish to freezing them. Many small, coastal communities have suffered through the trend.
There is certain to be job fallout of some sort from further automation, but Knapp said it “could revolutionize it in a good way.”
Cheaper, more efficient processing holds the potential of upping the value to fishermen of the salmon they catch, and it could help end one current practice increasingly employed to drive down the cost of processing Alaska salmon:
Head and gut the fish in Alaska, then ship the carcasses to China to be filleted and deboned by cheap labor, possibly slave labor. The Associated Press reported in October that the China were recruiting impoverished North Koreans to process U.S. salmon.
The Koreans are forced to live in tightly controlled and monitored dormitories, wrote reporters Tim Sullivan, Hyung-Jin Kim and Martha Mendoza. “Privacy is forbidden. They cannot leave their compounds without permission. They must take the few steps to the factories in pairs or groups, with North Korean minders ensuring no one strays. They have no access to telephones or email. And they are paid a fraction of their salaries, while the rest — as much as 70 percent — is taken by North Korea’s government.”
One of the products identified as coming from the Chinese factories was “Sea Queen, Wild Caught Pin Salmon Fillets.” Once sold by Walmart, the fillets were reported to be sourced from Alaska and British Columbia pink salmon.
The traffic in salmon between Alaska and China has been going on for a long time, and it has grown steadily though this is seldom discussed in the 49th state.
The Seattle Times more than a decade ago revealed salmon being shipped to China for processing.
“There are 36 pin bones in a salmon and the best way to remove them is by hand,” Trident Seafoods Corporation founder Charles Bundrant told reporter Choy Leng Yeong back in 2005. “Something that would cost us $1 per pound labor here, they get it done for 20 cents in China.”
Bundrant is a legend in the Alaska fishing business. The richest fisherman in the history of the North Pacific, he last year made the Bloomberg Billionaire Index.
Silver Bay Seafoods, a commercial fishermen’s cooperative based in Sitka, earlier this decade doubled down on Trident’s pioneer processing in China.
“Today, Silver Bay has plants in Sitka, Valdez, Craig, and a new multi-million dollar plant in Naknek in Bristol Bay. The company is 80 percent owned by fishermen. They have financed the growth through retained income, by following the high volume, low cost model,” John Sackton, the editor of Seafood News reported for Undercurrent News in 2014.
“They produce H&G (headed and gutted) frozen salmon.
“The business model is to attract the top producing harvesters, have them fish at full strength, pack the product in as quick and low-cost way as possible, and sell to China where further processing and distribution takes place.”
Technological changes – flash freezing and improved shipping between Alaska and China – drove the move to China, Knapp said; robotics and automation could kill that connection.
“This could be good news for Alaska,” Knapp said. “If it saves fishing, it’s good for a fishing community.”
Probably. But predicting the future is never easy.
If lots of low-paid workers, which fish processors are now having trouble recruiting for the short salmon season, are replaced by fewer, better paid personnel, Knapp said; that would be a good thing for the people involved.
At a community level, however, things get more complicated. When 5,000 workers come into a community like Dillingham, they support more air traffic; they require more food and goods be brought in to support them; they usually spend some amount of money, no matter how small, in that community.
If a tenth as many show up, even if they are paid more, there is almost certain to be less revenue coming into the community.
That said, there is no stopping technological change. Knapp does, however, expect it to happen faster in Norway and Iceland than in Alaska. Farmed fish are easier for machinery to handle, although that is changing fast, too.
Machines can now scan fish, assess their size and even sort through the algorithm that directs them as to how to cut a certain size fish to minimize waste. The biggest problem Alaska processors might face, according to Knapp, is the unpredictability of Alaska salmon returns.
If a company borrows money to make a big investment in equipment and the fish don’t show, it still has to make the payments on the loans. It can’t cut costs the way it can with human employees: “Sorry, the fish didn’t show. There’s no work. You might as well go home.”
It’s simply not as easy for companies processing fluctuating returns of wild fish to employ technology as it is for farmers. And going forward, technology appears destined to just keep making fish farming more and more efficient and thus more economical.
New York-based Manna Fish Farms is planning raise striped bass in pens eight miles off the East Coast where the fish will be watched with undersea cameras and fed by a buoy that holds 20 tons of feed and can drop it into the pens on a schedule.
“It works from shore to feed fish. We can watch on it camera,” Donna Lanzetta, the Manna CEO, told Alan Lynch of Seafood Source. “Our goal is 100 percent transparency. You can go on a computer and watch our fish, so you’re assured we’re not harming the environment in any way, and we’re doing right by the ocean. We want to be a model for other farms to come.”
Alaska might have banned fish farms, but they’ve truly arrived in force almost everywhere else.