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Decades in the making, salmon-deboning Pinbone Wizard ready for market

Despite the name, don't confuse the Pinbone Wizard the with classic The Who song about pinball.

Though once you see the machine in action, quickly and efficiently pulling the tiny pin bones out of a salmon filet without wrecking the meat, it's hard not to walk away with the descending chord progression of the classic rock song stuck in your head.

After more than 20 years in the making, a Juneau-based manufacture recently bought the patent licenses for the "Pinbone Wizard" with the hopes of building and selling the machine, which is designed to do exactly what its name suggests: Pull pin bones out of fish.

Numerous prototypes and versions later, the machine is ready for market, according to designers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. They have hopes to market the machine to fishermen and small fish processing facilities across Alaska.

Larry Kozycki at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute Machine Shop first developed the machine in the mid-1990s. The idea was spurred by a call from then-Gov. Tony Knowles, who, in an effort to combat farmed salmon, was encouraging Alaskans to come up with innovative ways to add value to Alaska fish.

Thus inspired, Kozycki worked toward building the wizard, which uses a series of disks that open and close, grabbing bones and then pulling them out at a 90-degree angle. The disks release the bone, and a stream of water pushes it out of the disk and out of the machine.

Kozycki died in 2001, after which the project fell to Greg Shipman, current manager of the Geophysical Institute Machine Shop. Over the years he and other machinists have made some modifications to the wizard, taking it from a mechanical machine to a pneumatic one. That made it lighter, Shipman said, when they out some of the heavy machine parts. But for the most part, Shipman said Kozycki's design has stayed mostly intact.

Shipman said the Pinbone Wizard essentially recreates the motion of a person grabbing a pin bone and pulling it out with a pair of needle-nosed pliers, in the process leaving the flesh of the salmon intact. It's easy to use, he said; most people learn how to operate the box-shaped machine in about half an hour. The trickiest part is learning where to place the filet over the small slot that holds the disks. It takes about 10 seconds to pull all the bones out of a full-sized filet.

That's because instead of a person tackling each bone one by one, the machine can grab up to 180 bones per minute.

It's extremely precise, Shipman said, pulling 97 to 98 percent -- or more -- of the bones out of each filet.

Pin bone machines aren't new to large processing facilities, but Shipman said those are often not as efficient as the Pinbone Wizard.

Plus, the UAF machine is smaller -- it weighs about 100 pounds -- and can be plugged in to a standard electrical outlet.

It's generally not suited for casual fishermen, Shipman said, due to the machine's weight and costs. But for small fish processors or fishermen catching a couple hundred fish a day, the machine is ideal.

Adam Krynicki, business development director at the UAF Office of Intellectual Property and Commercialization, said change is sometimes a slow process in the fishing industry, which is in part the reason it took so long for the machine to be developed.

"It's one of those things; it's a product and it's one of those markets that's not really fast moving when it comes to change," Krynicki said.

But he said the sturdy machine could be used for decades.

Mike Bell, owner of Freeman-Bell, the Juneau machine shop that bought the license, fully admits that he doesn't imagine the machine will be a huge moneymaker for his company, but he sees it as a useful tool for small fishing outfits in Southeast Alaska.

His company just got their hands on the first machine and is in the process of learning how to rebuild the components efficiently. Until then, he's not sure how much the machine will cost -- it could be anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to several thousand dollars each. Bell plans to manufacture about 30 machines a year.

For Shipman, who's long been involved with the project, it's just exciting to see it being put to actual use.

"I'm happy it's in Alaska and an Alaska entity will be taking it over and Alaska fishermen will have something locally made," he said.