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Nanotechnology improves chilling of fish

Laine Welch

Keeping fish cold is the key to quality, and new technologies such as nanotechnology is taking chilling to whole new levels. Nanotechnology is the study of manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale. And the science can easily be applied to making better ice.

NanoICE technology, invented in Iceland 10 years ago, is available for the first time in the U.S. The ice is made up of tiny crystal particles about the size of most bacteria, and the frigid "fractions" immerse fish completely.

"With flake ice or larger ice you get a lot of air pockets, and they allow bacteria to breed and multiply. By getting a more complete coverage at a molecular kind of level, you exclude air and bacteria from the surface, and the chilling effect is much more efficient," said Steve Dearden, NanoICE vice president of sales and marketing in Seattle.

The generators use 90 percent less refrigerant and 70 percent less power than conventional ice-making machines.

"The generators we make actually pump filtered sea water through and produce the thick, slushy ice solution. So instead of shoveling ice, which is what most small fishing vessels do, you can actually pump this into a hold or container where you're laying the fish down for storage," Dearden said.

The chilling method helps the fish retain its texture, color and freshness far longer, "and the big advantage is if fishing is slow, you can stay out longer," he added.

NanoICE generators can be scaled to the size of any operation, and each can be controlled separately. At processing plants, the machines can replace forklifts and bins moving to and from an ice house.

"You can have much more localized machines, or have a larger machine out in the ice house and you can pump it to where you need it," he said.

The cost for a NanoICE generator and installation into an engine room or fish hold is $30,000 to $40,000. The generators are eligible for energy-related tax breaks and grants. More information is available at www.nanoiceusa.com.

Fast fish freeze

Kodiak fish scientists have discovered a way to freeze-dry salmon in a matter of hours instead of several days. By simply tweaking time and temperature, nearly all the moisture can be removed from fillets far quicker than by traditional methods. The end product: bright-colored, freeze-dried pink, sockeye and chum salmon cubes.

"Part of the approach is for use perhaps in something like Cup O' Noodles, similar to chunks of chicken, and substitute those with salmon cubes," said Chuck Crapo, a seafood specialist at the University of Alaska's Fishery Industrial Technology Center in Kodiak.

The idea was spawned by freeze-dried fruit snacks for kids. The salmon chunks also can be used in soups or as salad toppings, and Crapo said they were a big hit as a snack at taste tests in Fairbanks. "We had some salty, garlicky flavors that were really good. Actually, they were kind of addictive; you kept eating them," he added with a laugh.

The ultimate goal is to attract the interest of food producers, and Crapo said he has already had inquiries from major freeze-dry operators. The Fish Tech Center also has a small grant from NASA to pursue freeze-dried salmon for astronauts in space.

Salmon skins are being taste-tested by dogs here on Earth. The trend toward boneless/skinless salmon leaves all the skins on the cutting room floor, and Crapo said they are being dried and turned into dog treats.

"We will roll them up and fold them in half and make them like a pig's ear. People feed their pets pigs' ears, and this would be a salmon analog to that. We are producing some prototypes and sending them off to Fairbanks for folks to do some testing on their pets," Crapo said.

Fish Tech scientists are experimenting with using extracts from fruits and vegetables that contain natural nitrates, commonly used in the meat industry to fix color and keep it from fading.

"That might be a way of adding a little color to pink salmon, especially the tail meat," Crapo said. "It's really worth looking into."

Salmon watch

Pink salmon catches are setting records in Southeast Alaska, nearly all in the northern regions, where nearly 30 million were landed through Friday. The pace had dropped off, though, and the Southeast forecast of 55 million humpies could fall short. In all, the state predicts a catch of 133 million pink salmon this summer -- a 25 percent increase from last year -- but with slow going at Kodiak and Prince William Sound that might be a stretch.

Dock prices at major ports are roughly 41 cents a pound, or about $1.50 per pink. Upper Cook Inlet's sockeye salmon catch has topped 5 million so far, the best in 10 years. Good numbers of chums are being caught in the Yukon River, and Norton Sound is seeing its best chum catches since 1988. Also setting salmon records this year -- Russia, where the wild salmon harvest has topped 305,000 tons of mostly pinks and chums. That competition is likely to press Alaska salmon roe prices downward.

Fish tweakers speak

As measures to stop approval of Frankenfish move through Congress, producers are starting to speak out to try to rally support for their genetically modified salmon. If the fish gets the nod from the Food and Drug Administration, it would be the first such creature to be marketed to Americans.

"We understand the sensitivity of the fishermen and the industry in Alaska. However, our product, we believe, does not represent a threat to them because it will simply displace an imported product that is coming in from offshore at the present time," said Ronald Stotish, president of Massachusetts-based Aqua Bounty, the company that has created the genetically modified Atlantic salmon.

The fish contains a chinook gene that makes the Atlantic salmon grow more than twice as fast as normal.

"It's been portrayed in the media as a bizarre concoction that is somehow unnatural. But the fact of the matter is that it reflects a change of less than one ten-thousandth of 1 percent of the entire genetic material of the fish. That is less change than one normally sees in normal sexual mating," Stotish told Coast Alaska radio, adding that plans call for the genetically modified salmon to be grown in Panama.

Recent lab studies showed that genetically modified male salmon are able to spawn with wild female Atlantics, fueling concerns that escapees could crossbreed with wild fish. Stotish assured, however, that Aqua Bounty fish cannot escape or mate.

"What the application calls for is land-based, contained cultivation of all sterile female populations that will be reared only in FDA-inspected facilities," Stotish said.

Another big worry is the impact Frankenfish might have in the marketplace. National surveys have shown that customers are skittish about genetically modified foods, and there are fears that man-made fish could turn them away from all salmon. It also could take away market share from wild-caught Alaska fish. But Stotish insists the genetically modified salmon will compete only against farmed fish already pouring into the U.S. from other countries.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, recently pushed an amendment through the House that would keep the FDA from approving the genetically modified food product, and a similar measure is pending in the Senate. If Frankenfish does get the OK from the FDA, no labeling will be required to alert customers it is a genetically tweaked salmon.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. Her column appears on Sundays in the Daily News. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting or placing on your website or newsletter, contact msfish@alaska.com.


LAINE WELCH
FISHERIES