Last month I had the opportunity again to visit the mecca of sustainable seafood, this time on Akutan Island, Alaska, during the peak of the king crab season. This time I was accompanied by Jason Pride, Assistant Vice President of Meat/Seafood Operations at Hy-Vee.
Akutan Island is located in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands chain, approximately 750 miles southwest of Anchorage. This is one the most remote places in the world. On the map, it looks like a desolate island that lies in the middle of the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean. However, this island houses one of the largest seafood processing facilities in North America, which is owned and operated by Hy-Vee’s seafood partner Trident Seafood. With more than 1,400 company-housed employees on site during peak seasons, this year-round, multi-species frozen seafood operation is capable of processing more than 3 million pounds of raw seafood each day. Wild Alaska pollock – which is the Bering Sea’s most abundant sustainable whitefish – is the main focus of this facility. This day the focus was not pollock, but instead Responsible Choice Alaska king crab.
How remote is this facility? There are only two ways in: by boat or by helicopter. First you must find a break in the weather to get a plane into the neighboring island of Akun. Other than the airport, the only thing on the island is a small herd of wild cattle that were originally brought in as a food source for locals. Once you arrive at the airport, you must then get on a boat and brave the open water or take a helicopter to Akutan Island. Your stay on Akutan may change at any time depending on Mother Nature, meaning you could be stuck there for a while.
The weather was in our favor, but only for six hours. After that point, we had to get off the island and in the air, otherwise we could have been temporarily stranded there. We did our best with the time we had to tour the massive seafood processing facility in full production of processing king crab from start to finish. It was truly a sight to see! Jason and I had the privilege to handle some of these deep cold water creatures as they were being offloaded into the facility.
Part of the tour took place on Sig Hansen’s famous Northwestern crab boat, which was offloading its final catch of the year. I will never forget chatting and hearing stories from Sig and his crew. The crew was tired but in great spirits as their king crab season was coming to an end after only two weeks. The word on the docks from the fishermen was that king crab was bountiful and crab were everywhere. This was great news after preliminary management test catches came back poor, which resulted in large quota cuts on all Alaska crab.
Our tour of Akutan Island came to end as we received word that we needed to leave in order to beat the weather and move on to the next leg of our trip to Kodiak, Alaska. Here lies another community built on sustainable fishing. The shorelines were lined with seafood processing facilities. None stood out more than that of Trident’s trio of facilities: Star of Kodiak, Pillar Mountain and its newest expansion, the Near Island facility. This facility houses a new fully-automated production line for pollock and salmon. The facility features renewable energy produced by a combination of hydroelectric and wind generators. It was amazing to see the full-automation process in operation processing pollock. The only human interaction and handling was at the time of checking weights on cases before they head into the blast freezers to be frozen. This automation takes food safety to the next level.
Our journey gave new meaning to the phrase “Heading to the Source.” Seafood is truly a global industry that one cannot fully understand by reading an article or by surfing the Internet. To fully understand it, you must be there as the product is being offloaded, processed and packed. But most importantly, seeing the communities, families and fisherman firsthand and witnessing their passion gave us the will to support and sustain these fisheries!