photos by Taylor Balkom

Editor Lisa Lupo made the 3,000-mile journey from Ohio to Alaska to provide a first-hand view of doing business from “The Last Frontier.”

Photos by Taylor Balkom

t was early August in Alaska. The salmon had pretty much run their annual course up Ketchikan Creek, except for the last of the stragglers and those that had died in the attempt, leaving their decaying bodies in the creek and a pervasive smell across this southeastern Alaska city. It is a smell that may seem repellent to some, but it is the life-force of this “Salmon Capital of the World,” whose population of just over 8,000 swells by more than 900,000 each summer as a popular salmon-run stop on Alaskan cruise ship tours.

While it is this same seasonality that drives the production of seafood-processing facilities in Alaska, its schedule is much less predictable and its access less grand than those of the average 500 cruise ship dockings that dominate the city for five months — and for which the personnel of any tourist shop or hotel can tell you the daily schedule.

If only the fish were as reliable.

FISH SET THE SCHEDULE. As Trident Seafoods Vice President of Food Safety and Quality Assurance (FSQA) Kenny Lum said, the catch determines the processing schedule for the plant. As a vertically integrated harvester, processor, and marketer of seafood, Trident controls every part of the process from its fleet of 40+ vessels in the waters of Alaska that catch, catch-process, or transport the fish to its 12 shore-based plants that process and ship the fresh fish. And all seafood is shipped within 24 to 48 hours for direct sale or further processing in its plants in the Lower 48, China, Japan, or Europe.

Photo by Lisa Lupo.

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As such, said FSQA Manager of Value-Added Products Jeff Hermanson, “We maintain a traceable chain of custody through the seafood supply chain.” And even in the plants located overseas, “there are Trident employees on the ground wherever we are processing,” Lum said.

But because its fish comes directly off the boats into processing, Trident has little control over the amount of fish that comes into the dock from day to day. Not only is this dependent on the number of fish in the waters at the particular time of year, but, Lum said, “A lot of it is about how much fish are allowed to be caught, based on fishing rights and quotas that are managed to ensure a sustainable resource. Then we have to process the fish rapidly to maintain quality, and get it out the door as soon as possible.”

To understand the vast variability of a day’s (or week’s or month’s) catch, take, for example, the contrast of my August salmon-scarce experience (described in the first paragraph) with that of the height of the salmon run in the same creek. As described by the Alaska Channel, “Thousands of fish work persistently to get up the creek, in an amazing sight that makes you wonder if you could walk across the water on their backs. At the height of the run, Ketchikan Creek is literally black with salmon.” (www.alaska.org/detail/ketchikan-creek-falls)

While the salmon run occurs “regularly” between May and September, it can peak anywhere in that time, with vast variation year to year, then virtually stop from October to April. Similarly, the availability of other fish is greatly reduced during the off-season, with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game completely closing off waters to fishing at times, and even short-notice closures occurring in-season by emergency order of the department. And even during open season, the catch may be limited by the fishing license or catch restrictions of the individual vessel.

So, all the fishing vessels, transporters, and processors can do is be prepared at all times during the season and shut down once the fish has run its course — which is exactly what happens at most of Trident‘s Alaska plants.

THE LAST FRONTIER. Adding to the business challenges of seasonal catch is the remote nature of Alaska, for which the state nickname is, aptly enough, “The Last Frontier.” Of Trident’s 12 Alaska plants, six are located on islands — of which the state has 2,670. While a land surrounded by water may be conducive to the transportation of fish, it is not necessarily as convenient for the people who live and work there. For example, the Ketchikan International Airport, on Gravina Island, is a ferry ride across the Tongass Narrows from the city of Ketchikan on Revillagigedo Island. The ferry runs on the quarter or half hour, and with the 2005 rescinding of funding for a bridge across the Narrows (which has become known as “The Bridge to Nowhere”), the ferry provides the only access between the city and its airport — unless, of course, one chooses to charter a private boat or one of the many seaplanes that tour visitors around the island and its Tongass National Forest.

It also doesn’t help that Alaska is both the largest and the most sparsely populated state in the U.S., which means limited availability of workers.

So, how has a business the size of the family-owned Trident Seafoods, which was founded by Tennessee-native Chuck Bundrant in 1973 with a single fishing boat, overcome the challenges of this “Last Frontier” to grow into the largest seafood company in the U.S., processing 500,000 metric tons of fish each year and generating nearly $2 billion in annual revenue?

By emulating the pioneering spirit that brought Bundrant to Alaska those 40-some years ago and allowing the nature of Alaska to control its processes and growth rather than attempting to control Alaska.

PIONEERING INNOVATION. Since the build-ing of its first vessel in 1973, funded by a partnership of Bundrant with “two other like-minded crab fishermen” Kaare Ness and Mike Jacobson, the company has invested in innovation. That first 135-foot Billikin was the first to have onboard cookers and freezing equipment, so that the catch could be processed as soon as it was pulled out of the water. Though its vessels are now larger and more modern, Trident continues this process today, with much of its fish caught, prepared, and frozen onboard within minutes of capture.

To enable this, the Trident fleet includes catchers, catcher-processors, floating processors, tenders, and freighters.

  • Catcher vessels may catch any of virtually all the commercial species common to Alaska and the North Pacific, including king and snow crab, salmon, halibut, pollock, rockfish, pacific cod, flounder, and sole. 
  • While floating processors receive fish from the catchers and process it at sea, catcher-processor vessels both catch and process the fish, with the purpose of all at-sea processing vessels (or “factory trawlers”) being to bring the processing step as close as possible to the resource so the fish are frozen only once between catch and consumer, enhancing the quality of the finished product. The primary target species in Alaska is Pollock, which makes up the waters’ greatest biomass. Caught primarily in late winter and summer, it is filleted and frozen in blocks on these boats then shipped to a Trident or Trident-customer land-based facility for further processing. In the spring and fall, the ships and crew move down to the Pacific Northwest for fish such as Pacific Whiting, which is processed into surimi (imitation crab sticks). And when not engaged in harvesting at either area, the vessels are in the shipyard undergoing repair and maintenance, and getting ready for their next season.
  • Tenders transport the caught and/or processed fish to the Alaska plants for further processing and/or packaging, and as deckhand Tim Steiner stated, act as a sort of “24-hour gas station and mini-mart” for the crews of the catching and processing boats. As the tender aligns itself with the fishing vessel to gather in its catch, the crew of the vessel will cross to the tender themselves to check out and make purchases from the tender’s pantry and freezer which is filled with everything from paper goods to lettuce to steaks, do laundry, take showers, and offload their garbage. While this is happening, the fish are being sucked out of the hold of the fishing vessel into that of the tender, going through a sorting and weighing process until the tender’s three holds are filled. Once everything is completed, the fishing vessel heads back out to sea to catch more, and the tender begins its trip back to the Trident dock to drop off the fish, get any needed service, and restock the pantry. Altogether, Steiner said, a round trip can take nine to 12 hours depending on the tide. The four or five crewmembers of a tender will generally live aboard for about three months at a time.
  • Freighters support the processing vessels and land-based facilities, transporting freight to Alaska and Washington.

AN ALASKAN OPERATION. Representative of Trident’s shore-based Alaskan operations, the Ketchikan facility operates only during the season — three to five months of the year. And even when in season, the plant may or may not be in operation depending on the catch. As evidence of that, the plant had expected a catch to come in the night before my August visit, which would have put them into full operation. But an at-sea delay meant the catch would not come in until the evening, leaving much of the equipment and workers off for the day.

And in a Trident seafood plant of Alaska, that is simply the way of the world, as are the dynamics and demographics of the workforce, of which there were about 450 for the 2016 season. Before the season begins each year, Trident assembles its workforce, comprised of residents, university students, and many international workers primarily from Mexico and the Philippines, to travel to Alaska to work at the Ketchikan plant. Trident not only pays the workers’ travel costs, but provides housing and meals for all workers through the season. While this is of benefit to the workers, many of whom come back year after year and recruit family members as well, it also provides an on-site crew, so the plant can quickly begin operations when a catch arrives.

With only a radio call to alert the plant that fish are on the way into the dock, the first step when a tender arrives at the Ketchikan dock, carrying 150,000 to 300,000 pounds of fish, is a quality control check. The fish will be inspected, the temperature measured, and reports passed along. “We have a compensation program for the fishermen. If they have maintained the fish at 350F or less, they get a bonus,” said Plant FSQA Manager George Vigil.

Then the caught salmon will be pumped out of the hold and sorted by species (primarily pink, sockeye, and chum), with the amounts of each varying by season. Once off the boat, the plant process begins with the fish placed in tanks of refrigerated sea water to control the first wash of the fish. Water temperature is closely monitored, and the fish may be held in this tank for minutes up to a day.

If not already done on a processing boat, the head is cut off, the guts removed, and the salmon eggs (roe) pulled out and separated from the viscera to be processed in the egghouse. The viscera are not discarded, however, they are simply separated to be used in fish oil, meal, or other byproduct. “We use everything; nothing goes to waste,” Vigil said. Because the roe is a ready-to-eat (RTE) food, its operations are completely separated from the cannery and fillet operations, following the more intensive RTE guidelines with increased ATP environmental swabbing, and a dedicated brining line — through which the eggs travel for exactly 45 minutes for curing. The vacuum-packed eggs then go through a metal detector and into a freezer to be shipped out. Altogether, it will have been only 24 to 48 hours from the time the boat docked with the fish until the packaged roe goes out the door.

As the roe is being processed in one part of the plant, the fish is being filleted, skinned, sorted by size and quality, and put into totes to be iced down for 24 to 48 hours. This is done, in part, to let it age as needed to remove the pin bones.

Representative of Trident’s shore-based Alaskan operations, the Ketchikan facility operates only during the three- to five-month season — and even then, operations depend on the catch.

THE CANNERY. As one of the largest cannery operations in Alaska, the plant has 12 lines on which it processes RTE canned salmon in four sizes: quarter-pound, half-pound, one-pound, and four-pound cans — there are only three companies in Alaska that produce four-pound cans.

But because a catch had not come in, the workers were conducting the once-a-season recanning operation of underweight cans. The process is labor intensive, so cans are brought in from all of Trident’s Alaskan plants so the work is consolidated into a single location a single time each season. Each can is manually opened by a worker; the contents are poured into a new can and weighed. The new can is then sealed, cleaned and coded — with both an ink stamp and embossing, because the oiliness of the fish could cause rub-off of the ink.

Whether undergoing canning or recanning, cans are frequently visually examined as CCPs to ensure container integrity. Once the cans are sealed, they undergo a retort cook step, with validation through colored tags — purple changing to light green and white stripes turning to black indicating that the cans were subject to the steam process and had not bypassed the retort.

Continuous recording charts and manual records are meticulously reviewed to verify all product was cooked for the proper time at the proper temperature. Seam checking is also a CCP, with the facility utilizing a seam scope that takes electronic images of the seam cross-section to validate its overlap and show any wrinkling as an indication of tightness. Another FSQA function is monitoring weight control. To ensure accuracy and regulatory compliance, all scales are recalibrated and batteries checked on a daily basis.

Although the canned salmon is a finished product, individual cans are labeled offsite, so the cans leave Ketchikan on pallets as unlabeled “brite stack” with pallet tags carrying the information necessary for full traceability. As an exception to FDA regulation, canned salmon is allowed to be shipped unlabeled to offsite warehouses because Alaska salmon canners participate in a unique voluntary cooperative agreement between FDA, industry, and the Seafood Products Association (SPA), the internationally recognized thermal processing authority. The agreement includes the requirement for every lot of canned salmon to undergo sensory evaluation and additional container integrity screening when labeled at the offsite warehouse.

THE LOWER 48. In addition to its Alaskan vessels and processing operations, Trident has six processing plants in the Continental U.S. — in Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, and its newest in Georgia. “We needed a presence on the East Coast because about 70% of battered and breaded product is sold on the East Coast,” Hermanson said. So, to see the next step in the source-to-plate process, we continued our journey along Trident’s operations at two Seattle-area plants: the Anacortes “value added” production and Everett smoked fish facilities.

One of the primary products made at Anacortes, Trident’s ultimate fish sticks, are cut from whole Pollock fillet (not minced fish) which were frozen into “head-to-tail” blocks on one of its factory trawlers or Alaskan shore facilities and shipped south. At Anacortes, the fish block is removed from its cardboard container and sliced horizontally then vertically into strips, while maintaining its frozen state throughout. The sticks are battered and breaded and par-fried to be shipped to retail. At Anacortes, a number of other value-added products also are made from a variety of fish species, such as cod, salmon, tilapia, and mahi mahi, some of which are made into burgers. The Anacortes plant has three lines, all of which are on wheels, so they can be reconfigured daily. This is both to enable best fit for the intended production and for sanitation purposes. The lines are wheeled out each night, the area and equipment completely cleaned and sanitized, and the equipment brought back in the next morning. The only permanent fixtures are the fryers, freeze tunnels, and packaging lines.

In addition to its three CCPs — metal detection, batter maintaining temperatures below 500F, and label verification for allergens — the facility is transitioning to a custom all-digital data-management system. With its real-time access and monitoring, the data can be viewed anywhere in the system, and will enable the facility to go paperless within the next year.

The Everett facility produces cold- and hot-smoked perishable salmon products and retort smoked salmon non-perishable products, with its smokehouse operating 24 hours a day year round, and the plant producing both retail and foodservice smoked-salmon products along with industrial byproducts that will be further processed into human or pet products. The CCPs at Everett are the fish dry curing or wet brining, smokehouse temperatures to control Clostridium botulinum and vegetative pathogens during hot smoking, cooler temperatures, metal detection, and labeling of allergens and handling statements. Hot-smoked fish are maintained at a minimum internal temperature of 1450F for 30 minutes while cold-smoked must stay below 900F ambient throughout the cold-smoking step.

Underweight cans are brought into the Ketchikan plant from all of Trident’s Alaskan sites so the labor-intensive recanning operation is consolidated into a single location a single time each season.

The plant is also highly focused on pre-requisite programs. “We are always doing environmental testing and looking for niches in order to be proactive. Our pre-requisite programs are the cornerstone of our food safety system. As production has increased, the pre-requisite programs have increased to offset the increased risk,” said FSQA Manager of RTE Foods Scott Thacker. “Our RTE food safety mantra is based on the risk of occurrence in relation to the rate of introduction or residence and rate of removal. Essentially our rate of microbial removal through pre-requisite programs (GMPs and SCPs) must be greater than the rate of microbial introduction; or residence equals reduced risk of pathogen occurrence.”

Throughout the day, sanitation and quality assurance visually monitor and verify the pre-requisite programs, and the plant’s environmental monitoring program verifies that the microbial levels are acceptable. “We choose to seek and destroy transient and resident microbial risks through extensive food contact and non-food contact environmental testing,” Thacker said.

SUSTAINING ALASKA. While sustainability is the cornerstone of the company’s long-term business philosophy, going back to that of its founder, Trident has been working to further these efforts over the last few years. “We optimize what nature gives us, utilizing every bit of it that we can,” Lum said.

As such, the company follows intense responsible-fisheries-management practices in Alaska and is very careful about ensuring its practices are sustainable. “There is a minimum amount of the product that goes unused,” Lum said. “We know there is not an unlimited supply.”

To ensure waste is minimized as much as possible, the company invests in research and development aimed at extracting every bit of value from the fish, and it has been diversifying its markets to create better use of the byproducts, such as for fish meal and animal feed and food.

TRIDENT FOOD SAFETY. “There is no ‘budget’ for food safety; meaning we spare no expense to produce safe food,” Lum said. In addition to strong internal food safety systems, Trident participates with industry associations on food safety initiatives that go well beyond fundamental regulatory requirements. For example, Trident participates in the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) RTE task force, focused on sound science-based pathogen control strategies.

As part of the voluntary industry, FDA, SPA cooperative agreement previously mentioned, Trident also works directly with FDA as a participant in the Salmon Control Plan, through which a sample of every lot of canned salmon out of Alaska is examined by the SPA sensory team, with the results reported back to FDA. The samples are tested for quality and compliance and the reports provide support documentation for certification of canned salmon export shipments.

All Trident fish is inspected thoroughly head to tail, and all processes are continuously monitored through GMPs and seafood HACCP, Lum added. In addition to regulatory compliance, all Trident plants participate in a number of voluntary inspection programs including those of the SPA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Seafood Inspection Program, and National Fisheries Institute (NFI). Most of its plants are also GFSI certified, including its three catcher-processor vessels — the first vessels to achieve BRC certification in the food industry.

NORTH TO THE FUTURE. From its founding on the 135-foot Billikin in the pristine waters of Alaska to its current status as the largest vertically integrated seafood company in North America, Trident Seafoods has held to the philosophy by which Bundrant founded the company, focused on respect for the sea and its resources: “working toward sustaining a thriving and abundant ocean for generations to come ...

“Because we are fishermen at our core, and we have a bond with the ocean — when it prospers, we prosper too.”

The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at llupo@gie.net.