Laine Welch: Fuel cell technology boosts long-distance fish shipping

Laine Welch

A maritime milestone will be set this week as a container of 18 tons of fresh salmon from Chile is offloaded from a cargo ship in California after a month at sea -- without being frozen.

How, you ask. By using fuel cell technology in a new way.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that converts hydrogen and oxygen into water, and in the process produces electricity.

"We use that capability and take out the oxygen from a palletized, plastic-wrapped container of fish to less than 200 parts per million. So we basically cause the fish to go dormant and extend their natural shelf life," explained Mark Barnekow, CEO of California-based Global Fresh Foods. "It all gets done at the processing plant before it even gets loaded on the truck."

More than 30 shipments of fresh Chilean farmed salmon, as well as tilapia and barramundi from Asian countries, have been delivered so far to the East Coast of the U.S., to Japan and soon to Europe. The company plans to start shipping other seafood as well.

"Throughout each shipment our fuel cell wakes up every 10 minutes and reads the atmosphere. If it detects the oxygen levels have risen, it actually scavenges it to keep the level low," Barnekow said of Global's patented system.

The technology also fits with the company's "green" shipping philosophy.

"As everyone recognizes, a lot of the seafood from around the world comes by air from long distances. This technology allows us to instead use cleaner ocean shipping and reduce the CO2 emissions," he said.

The first Chilean salmon shipment to the West Coast shows that the seafood industry now has technology comparable to that of the meat industry, where the supply chain can be 40 to 50 days long.

"Every time you freeze and defrost a fish you lose 25 percent to 35 percent of its value. Our technology allows you to maintain freshness so you can maintain your price and your profits at a higher level," he said.

Alaska and the Pacific Northwest are "a great launching point" for shipping a variety of fresh species to Japan and throughout Asia, he added. More than 85 percent of Alaska salmon goes to market frozen.

Bristol Bay and the USA

The dollars generated by the world's most valuable sockeye salmon fishery at Bristol Bay circulate well beyond Alaska. That's shown in a new report by economists at the University of Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research, which tracked the financial effect as the fish makes its way from fisherman to plate.

"Although fishing and processing take place in Alaska, because most of the total economic impacts of the Bristol Bay salmon industry occur outside Alaska, previous studies which focused only on impacts which occur in Alaska greatly understated its national economic importance," says the report, Economics of the Bristol Bay Salmon Fishery.

The fish bucks totaled $1.5 billion in sales across the U.S., based on 2010 figures, and the values have increased every year. The report concludes that for every dollar of direct output value created in Bristol Bay fishing and processing, more than two additional dollars are created in other industries, as payments from the fishery ripple through the economy. "These payments create almost three jobs for every direct job in Bristol Bay fishing and processing," the summary says.

Some highlights:

Salmon exports from Bristol Bay were valued at $250 million, 6 percent of the total value of all U.S. seafood exports.

Nearly four-fifths of the economic effects occur outside Alaska, with one-third occurring in Washington.

Nearly two-thirds of the people working in Bristol Bay are from other states.

The major processors are all based in Washington; most of the fishing and processing supplies and services are purchased there.

There are 1,860 drift gillnet permits and 1,000 setnet permits operating in Bristol Bay. One-third of permit holders are from West Coast states; the breakdown is Alaska, 1,474; Washington, 769; Oregon, 136; California,143; and other states and countries, 255.

Bionic crab shells

The shells of crabs, shrimp, lobsters and other crustaceans are being turned into bioplastics for food packaging. The shells contain a compound called chitin, which is also found in insects and fungi. Chitin is one of the most abundant biodegradable materials in the world.

With government financial backing, scientists at the Norwegian Institute of Food, Fisheries and Aquaculture Research have turned chitin into "active" packaging that can displace plastics made from petrochemicals. Products can range from hard bioplastics to thin films to cover food.

The food sector alone, including beverages, accounts for nearly two-thirds of global packaging from nonbiodegradable plastics.

Chitin has a rich history in agriculture, medicine and other fields. It can be used as a seed treatment and, when added to soil, it works as a biopesticide. It increases blooms in plants and extends the life of cut flowers and Christmas trees. The U.S. Forest Service has researched using chitin to control pathogens in pine trees and increase resin pitch flow, which resists pine beetle infestation.

Chitin can also be used in water filtration because it binds fine sediment together. Tests show that chitin combined with sand filtration removes up to 99 percent of turbidity in water.

Chitin's properties also cause blood to clot rapidly, so it is used in bandages by the U.S. and U.K. militaries.

Scientists have recently developed a chitin-based polyurethane coating that is "self-healing." When added to traditional coatings to protect paint on cars, for example, chitin reacts chemically to ultraviolet light and smooths away scratches in less than one hour.

Chitin also appears to limit fat absorption, which would make it useful for weight loss - but more research needs to be done on that.

Experts estimate more than 25 billion tons of chitin from seafood is disposed of each year.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. Contact her at

Laine welch