By Joseph Robertia
It’s hard to miss that Kenai is a fishing community. This isn’t just true in terms of sport fishermen coming to catch the king salmon of a lifetime. The area also hosts a commercial fishing industry and is home to fish-processing operations.
In all these endeavors, the succulent pink meat is filleted from various salmon species, but little is done with the rest of the fish, which includes the head, spine and internal organs. For decades these “byproducts” have merely been ground up and dumped back into the ocean. Now a new approach will soon be making the most of some of that waste.
“With cattle, pork and chickens, they use every part of the animal for something, and we should be doing the same thing with salmon. We should be working toward full-utilization technology, and this is a step in that direction,” said Patrick Simpson, president of Scientific Fishery Systems, Inc., an Anchorage-based business that has leased space at Kenai Landing for the summer season as part of a two-fold project to reduce the impact of fish-waste disposal practices, while simultaneously creating economic value.
“Our goal is to take everything they can give us,” Simpson said. This includes salmon heads that will be collected from the three of the four of the largest local processors. Snug Harbor Seafood, Inc.; Pacific Star Seafoods and Salamatof Seafoods, Inc., are the three participating processors. Inlet Fish Producers, Inc., is not participating at this time.
Simpson was in Kenai last week to oversee the assembly of the extraction equipment, leased from Alaska Marine Nutrition Co., which will be used to process the heads, primarily, into human-grade fish oil for sale to nutritional supplementation markets in the Lower 48.
“The heads are initially ground,” Simpson said, gesturing toward an industrial-sized grinder as big around and taller than a full-grown man.
“After grinding the heads, they go through a steam-injection process to cook the ground materials, and then the cooked materials are separated into three streams — one solid, one of oil and one of water,” he said.
The water will be discharged into the Kenai River, while the solid materials will be spread onto thin pans and frozen until it can be sold for use by manufacturers of dog food or treats. The oil is further refined to take out any latent impurities, and is ultimately packaged into 1,000-liter, plastic-lined SpaceKraft totes for shipment.
“I’d guess we’ll do 3 to 4 million pounds of fish byproduct, total,” Simpson said of plans for this summer. “And between feeding the heads in, monitoring the equipment and cleaning the totes, it takes around three people to run the system, so we should be employing around 25 people for the season.”
This is still a small-scale operation, compared to areas like Cordova and Dutch Harbor, where seafood is processed in much larger quantities and costs of fish-waste-utilization equipment are in the millions.
Much of the funding for the Kenai waste-utilization operation came through a Small Business Innovation Research grant — $75,000 for the first phase of the project, which primarily involved concept planning and design, and $350,000 for the second phase, which shifted to deployment and demonstration of the waste-utilization process.
Simpson said he hopes that, with the equipment in place, it won’t be long until a profit is earned.
“It should make money by the third year,” he said.
The Kenai operation will initially be dealing only with salmon heads and occasionally bellies, but not other processing byproducts from halibut, black cod or sablefish. This may change in the future, though.
“We’re very excited about the prospects. There’s fish meal, extracting chondroitin from the cooked solids, getting arginine from milt, using hydrolysate from the guts to produce liquid compost for organic farming,” Simpson said. “There’s still a lot we can do.”