Wild Alaskan Salmon and Seafood: Quality over quantity

Aug 3, 2017

Wild Alaskan Salmon and Seafood is a small-scale processing plant in Naknek. It focuses on quality, as most of the fish is caught by owner Tony Wood and then processed by his 'family-like' crew.

Nat is stationed at the gutting machine. He hand cleans the guts the machine does not remove.
Credit Caitlin Tan KDLG

According to a state survey, 99.1 percent of Bristol Bay’s massive salmon harvest is bought and processed by 12 major companies. Many fishermen dream of someday processing or marketing their own catch, but few prove willing to take the risk or trade the convenience of delivering to a big, well-equipped company. As KDLG’s Caitlin Tan reports, Naknek-based Wild Alaskan Salmon and Seafood has for a few years shown it is possible to catch and process up to 25,000 pounds a day.

Audio Transcript: Wild Alaskan Salmon and Seafood is a family owned business, processing 25,000 pounds of salmon per day.

Inside the plant 13 workers are hard at work. They work long hours, sometimes pulling 22 hour shifts, but morale is high, music is on and people are joking.

James Sumrall, assistant manager, said everyone is friends.

“When we come here being such a small and tight knit crew it’s kinda like we’re hanging out here. It’s steady and hard work but it’s kinda like we’re hanging out,” he said. “No type of overbearing hand that’s telling you work harder, work faster. Obviously we keep a good pace, but it’s a lot friendlier, moral stays high.”

Wild Alaskan Salmon and Seafood is owned by Tony and Heather Woods. Most of the salmon processed at the facility is caught by drifter Tony himself. In fact, he was not available for an interview because he is out fishing the tail end of the season.

Tony Wood started the company in 2003 and built the processing plant in 2006.

Plant Manager Scott Albert said the original idea behind the company was the skipper wanted to avoid going on catch limits that happen all too often in Bristol Bay.

“Specifically so he’d never have to go on limits with one of the big processors, and he could process all his own fish this way,” Albert said, “and it’s worked for him so far he gets to catch as much fish as he wants even at the peak. And he’s built himself a really big direct market for all the fish.”

The processing crew will pick up catch from the Wood’s drift boat daily at the beach. Wood chills his catch with refrigerated seawater onboard, and the crew offloads it into slushed ice containers on shore.

Sumrall said the chilling and careful handling of these sockeye are the company’s bread and butter.

“You can tell a fish is fresh and slushed properly if you pick it up and still stands up you know it sticks straight up and doesn’t drop down,” he said. “That’s how you know it’s still fresh because rigor mortis is still in effect.”

Fresh Bristol Bay salmon being filleted at Wild Alaskan Salmon and Seafood in Naknek.
Credit Caitlin Tan KDLG

The fish is chilled for two hours at the plant to reach a core temperature of 33 degrees, which is ideal for filleting.

Each fish goes through the processing line, starting with the heading table and the gutting machine, where a worker named Nat is stationed.

“We jump around. Right now I’m gutting and it starts with the heading table,” Nat said. “This machine splits them in the belly and we remove what the machine misses and we wash off the blood off the sides and inside and it goes in this tote here.”

If the fish is going to be filleted it goes through a splitting machine, which essentially splits it in half down the spine. The spine is scraped for extra meat that can be used for salmon burger.

Then the filleting begins, which Sumrall said is technical. Often workers only start filleting on their second or third season working for the company.

“Like in Ben’s case he’s a manager now he didn’t fillet for his first two seasons, this is his third,” Sumrall said. “This year he said, “Hey I want to try that.” And the first one he did was immaculate. He’s been kicking it off and heading off the fillet team everyday basically.”

Ben (left) said they can fillet 1,000 pounds of salmon in an hour. He started filleting this year and excelled to the top of the crew.
Credit Caitlin Tan KDLG

Four people typically work the fillet table.

Ben said the group of them can fillet 1,000 pounds an hour. He explained the process.

“Well I always start with the tale, do a tale cut. Then I get the ribs. Then I cut off the fins. Then I have it on the edge to get the ribs,” he said.

The fillets then goes to the vacuum seal station.

“I put the fish in these bags and line them up on the vac-packer, seal them and put them on racks to be frozen,” one worker said.

The fish are flash frozen for six to eight hours. They come out at a temperature of around negative 30 degrees and then are boxed and shipped.

Some customers order fresh deliveries. Those salmon are headed, gutted and shipped in insulated boxes with frozen gel packs to keep them cool till they reach their destination.

Either way, Manager Scott Albert said the company’s sockeye salmon is typically on a plane out of Naknek within 24 hours of being harvested.

“Our fish when it comes out to the final consumer I think is the highest quality fish you can get as far as salmon goes anywhere,” Albert said.

Wild Alaska Salmon has built a customer base of over 150 co-op grocery stores and restaurants eager for their salmon. The company also takes their frozen product around to farmer’s markets in seven mid-west states.

Because of the small Naknek-based crew, not all the salmon is filleted at that plant. Sumrall said sometimes it is headed, gutted, flash frozen and sent to a secondary processor to be filleted.

“If we were filleting everything we have up here that was Tony’s fish or fish we bought we’d be here all year,” he said.

Also not all of the catch meets filet quality standards, Sumrall said if that is the case it gets smoked. So far this year they have 2,000 pounds set aside for smoking, which happens as the fishing winds down.

Sumrall said skipper Tony Wood likes to scratch away till the bitter end of the run, long past when many other fishermen have lost their market. He thinks operations will wrap up in early August, and estimates Wild Alaskan Salmon will have processed around 300,000 pounds of sockeye this season.  

Reach the author at fish@kdlg.orgcaitlin@kdlg.org, or calling the station at 907-842-5281.