Opinion: Gone processing

"Modernize is another word for automate." What will the impacts in lost shorebased taxes & jobs mean to rural communities?

by | January 9, 2024

Filed Under Markets | Processors | Salmon | Trends

BY CRAIGMEDRED ON JANUARY 6, 2024

The price of progress?

As you read this, work is continuing in Bellingham, Wash., on a $40-million, federally financed, salmon-processing barge some think could revolutionize the Alaska fishing business.

By spring, the “Hannah” is expected to be ready to be towed north to an anchorage in Bristol Bay.

“Our refrigeration system freezes fish whole at temperatures colder than anyone in the industry, increasing both quality and shelf life,” says U.S. Department of Agriculture fianced Northline Seafoods. “With a cargo storage capacity of over 14 million pounds of frozen product, our barge carries Bristol Bay salmon to Western Washington where it can be processed to our customers’ specifications in the fall, winter, and spring.”

Northline CEO Ben Blakey has pitched the operation as a way to eliminate “large, shore-based processing facilities that are operated in brief, expensive seasonal periods. Salmon often spend multiple days in transit before being delivered to the processing facilities. High shipping costs outweigh the market value of salmon byproducts, and facilities may dump up to 30 percent of salmon weight back into the ocean ecosystem as waste.”

The consequences for rural Alaska communities built around salmon fishing and salmon processing would appear huge if Northline’s operation becomes a model for others, and even without it big changes for the communities still surviving as fishing villages appear on the horizon.

Losing property taxes paid on shore-based plants is just the tip of the iceberg. The shoreside plants also require seasonal housing for shore-based workers and year-round maintenance that helps sustain rural communities through the winter.

But these are changing times.

Northline’s experiment comes as Trident Seafoods, the state’s largest salmon processor, has announced plans to sell off about a third of its operations in the 49th state to help raise the capital to “modernize” its other processing operations.

Modernize is another word for automate. Automation is part of what helped Norwegian salmon farmers take over the global salmon business. More than 80 percent of the salmon eaten in the world today comes from salmon farms with Norway the biggest player.

And the Norwegians have taken automation to the extreme.

Fully automated fish farm in Norway Credit: ABB

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About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.

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