Business/Economy

Robots are likely on their way into Alaska fish-processing plants

Robots are cutting up snow crabs in Canada these days, a sign of things to come in the seafood processing industry.

Overall, robots are less involved in seafood processing than in other industries. Robots have yet to make it into any of Alaska's 176 fish processing shops, but the lure of reduced production costs, increased fish quality and crews of worker-bots is turning the tide.

The CBC reports that the world's first crab plant robot began work this spring in a plastic chamber about the size of a shipping container in Newfoundland. The robot receives crabs on a conveyor belt and quickly dismembers each with a buzzing blade. Crab legs then tumble into a tub below, all sorted, sectioned and ready to go.

Another robot in the works will soon shuck all the meat from the crab for a better financial return.

"Instead of sending our crab out as sections with the meat in the shell, we thought we could attract a higher price if we sold the meat instead," said Bob Verge, director of the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation, where the crab-cutting robots were created.

The meat extraction used to be done by hand in Newfoundland plants, but years ago that job shifted to China because labor is cheaper.

Bringing that step back to Newfoundland, Verge said, would make more money for plant operators and get more value from the resource.

And for the first time, robots also are deboning and filleting cod on Norwegian processing lines. New Atlas reports that a machine called APRICOT (automatic pin-bone removal in cod and whitefish) is using X-ray technology to locate the tiny pin bones in the fish and neatly trim them away using water jets.

"Unlike farmed salmon, which are similar in size and shape, and therefore suitable for automated machine filleting, the variability of wild-caught white fish such as cod has kept filleting of these fish a manual affair," said a spokesman for Marel of Iceland, the world's biggest fish processing equipment manufacturer.

The APRICOT robot system is expected to be ready for commercial use by year's end.

As the U.S. seafood industry becomes more reliant on products from aquaculture, equipment makers are designing machines for processing those more predictable fish.

Complete lines are now operating, for example, where whole farmed salmon enter at one end and portions ready-packed for supermarkets leave at the other.
Norwegian processor Nordlaks described the Marel-made system as "a seamless flow of salmon portions without manual handling."

"The system reduces labor costs by up to 20 percent," a spokesman said.

Robot-makers predict that in the future highly skilled humans will work on sophisticated machines and computers, not the slime lines.

"If we are going to attract young people, we need better jobs, not more jobs," said the crab robot's Bob Verge. "We have to offer them a better deal."

Robots also are making inroads into the big freezers that hold the bulk of Alaska's seafood before it goes to market.

A Netherlands company called NewCold has partnered with Trident Seafoods to build one of the nation's biggest cold storage warehouses outside of Tacoma, Washington.

Seafood products will be stored on a robot-run system of tiered trolleys and racks in low oxygen and pitch dark. Then, they're transported to the loading area by conveyors and worker-bots.

When the $50 million project is complete at year's end, it will have storage capacity of more than 25 million cubic feet.

Fishing updates

Alaska's salmon catch by July 7 was nearing 32 million fish, with fishing in many regions just ramping up. The 2017 forecast is 204 million.

Half of the harvest so far is Bristol Bay sockeye salmon. Buyers there have been struggling to keep pace with the surge of fish and most boats were on limits.  Otherwise:

*Dungeness crab: Low catches mean Southeast's summer Dungeness fishery will close July 25, three weeks earlier than usual.

*King crab: Alaska's first red king crab fishery is underway in Norton Sound with a 400,000-pound limit.

*Shrimp: The Prince William Sound fishery closed last week but opened in parts of Southeast, and lingcod fisheries are now open in both regions too.

*Scallop: Fisheries opened July 1 in Yakutat, Prince William Sound, Kodiak, the Alaska Peninsula, Dutch Harbor and a portion of Bristol Bay. Cook Inlet will open to scalloping in mid-August. The projection is for a combined Alaska catch of 306,000 pounds.

*Halibut: Commercial fishermen are about halfway to their 18 million-pound catch limit. Kodiak is leading all ports, followed by Seward and Petersburg. Homer has yet to top 1 million pounds.

*Sablefish: Seward and Sitka each are well over 2 million pounds. Fishermen have pulled up 53 percent of the 22.5 million-pound catch quota.

Stories help salmon

The organization Stand for Salmon is seeking photos and stories depicting the role salmon plays in Alaskans' lives. The group is working to change salmon habitat laws that haven't been updated since statehood in 1959, and believes a contest will help spread the word.

"It's always exciting to see where people fish, how they fish, how their families are impacted, how they cook and smoke their fish — the list goes on," said spokesman Samuel Snyder.

Contest deadline is Aug. 31. Learn more at www.standforsalmon.org.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.

Laine Welch | Fish Factor

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based journalist who writes a weekly column, Fish Factor, that appears in newspapers and websites around Alaska and nationally. Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.

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