Processing upgrades possible, but humans irreplaceable says analyst

Jul 16, 2016

Bristol Bay has come a long way from sailboats and canned fish, but one processing technology analyst tells that there are more upgrades to come.

Each summer, Bristol Bay's processors make relatively quick work of packaging millions of fish.
Credit KDLG News

Processing the 20 to 40 million sockeye harvested in about a month each summer is no small feat. And while the Bristol Bay salmon fishery has come a long way from the hey-days of canneries, there are more improvements to come.

Bergur Goumundsson has already seen his share of changes in fisheries. He grew up in a town of about 400 people north of the Arctic Circle. His father was a longline fisherman; his brother followed suit. Eventually, Goumundsson found his way into processing technology, and now works for the fisheries division at Morel, an international company that works in food processing.

“My job is basically to analyze processes and come up with ideas that could increase the yield. To make more usable products out of the raw materials that you have," he said. "The second thing we take a look at is can we do it more efficiently in terms of labor. Labor is getting more expensive, and most of the jobs in the fishing industry are repetitive, physically difficult jobs. Making these jobs easier and also more productive is something that I think is important not only for the companies but for the industry and the areas as well.”

For salmon, that can mean getting machines to do more of the measuring and cutting and trimming to get fillet-sized pieces. Goumundsson said the improvements are not exactly like using robots to process fish, although the newer lines do make more of the work and decision-making mechanical. Still, he doesn’t see humans as ever being phased out entirely.

“We are not going to see what we call the dark factory, where there is no one inside and no lights on," he said. "That is not going to happen in wild fishery because we have so much variability in the fish that comes in. I think we will just slowly evolve to make each task necessary a little bit more efficient so I think it’s inevitable that we will see reduction in the number of people needed to work. And I think we will also slowly see a development where you have more production done in Alaska from the raw material to the final end product.”

While Goumundsson is familiar with the mechanical side of things, seeing the world’s largest sockeye run has been somewhat surprising. In Iceland, fishing largely revolves around cod and white fish, along with pelagic fish like herring and mackerel.

“In Iceland, we have the atlantic salmon, which is very scarce in comparison to your wild species," he said. "For us it’s a royal fish, that is only allowed to be caught as sport fish, and it’s extremely expensive to buy licenses to go into the rivers to catch them. Here you see them come in by the boatload, so it’s very interesting.”

Goumundsson had visited Dutch Harbor previously, but this was his first trip to Bristol Bay. He made it to Egegik as well as Dillingham. And he didn't just see the boatloads of salmon - he ate a Bristol Bay red that he deemed a very good product.