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Seek Alaska fisheries diversification via underutilized species emphasis.

Seek Alaska Fisheries Diversification Via Underutilized Species Emphasis

U.S. mainland flatfish fillet market being developed, with the `sole source' being rock, flathead, dover and rex varieties. Unlike dwindling supply problem in Atlantic, Alaska waters rich in biomass.

With more than half of the United States' annual flatfish requirement of 161-million pounds now being imported, the further Americanization of Alaska's seafood catching and processing industry could contribute to easing the nation's large fish trade deficit. And for good reason as resources in Gulf of Alaska waters alone are thought to be in excess of 500,000 metric tons.

"It's the last underutilized species to capitalize on," said Melvin J. Monsen Jr., executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation (AFDF). "The waters are home to one-million metric tons of harvestable flatfish, most of which have gone unharvested in the past."

Last year, fishermen pulled 385,000 metric tons of flounder and sole from the U.S. side of the Bering Sea -- 66% of it via joint venture operations for yellowfin sole. The Gulf's allowable flatfish catch is 23,000 metric tons, but only 15,000 tons were harvested in 1988.

While there are 10 major species of flatfish in Alaskan waters, just four are being earnestly marketed at the moment: rock sole, rex sole, dover sole and flathead sole.

The Eagle Fisheries plant in Kodiak processed five-million pounds last year. Operated by Clouston Foods U.S.A. of Gloucester, Mass., flatfish account for 70% of the output. The facility is capable of packing up to 500,000 pounds of IQF fillets per month.

"Sole and flounder have long been staples of the East Coast fishing industry, but it's only recently that Alaskan companies have been competing," said Monsen. "Demand for the species has increased nationwide as stocks have dwindled off the east coasts of Canada and the U.S."

Clouston is marketing the four main varieties collectively as Alaska sole, which is FDA-approved nomenclature. However, the species are not inter-mixed in single box units.

How does the Pacific product compare with its Atlantic counterpart? Brian Landry of Clouston cited the results of National Marine Fisheries Service tests which showed no difference in biochemical profiles of fish from either ocean. He elaborated: "Other studies confirmed that in some cases the flesh of the Alaskan flatfish is more firm than the Western Atlantic flatfish. It has been speculated that water temperature and nutrients and other factors combine to make the difference."

A relative new business in Alaska, flatfish landings have only been available in sufficient quantity to market in volume for about a year. The AFDF hopes that other companies will follow Clouston's lead and establish plants as the cutback in foreign joint ventures has made for excess trawler capacity.

In the meantime, the fledgling industry has borrowed existing handling and processing technology from different countries around the world, modifying it where necessary to apply to Alaskan species. Baader North America has provided much of the equipment.

"Next year," said Peter Moore, AFDF flatfish project manager, "the second phase of our program will focus on developing commercial uses for the still-unused species, and on designing new processing equipment to increase recoveries and improve product quality."

Frozen appears to be the way to go for most flatfish producers. "The current distribution infrastructure makes shipping fresh a little chancy for the time being," advised Peter Beves, a transplanted New Englader who is now Eagle's Kodiak-based quality control manager. "However, the pipeline for frozen fillet markets is not as risky, and it offers an excellent opportunity to gain recognition for Alaskan sole."

But with things generally looking up for the flatfish industry, concern has been expressed about wasteful practices said to be carried out by some fishermen who harbor "endless resource" mentalities. In a recently released project review, Eagle Fisheries addressed the subject head on:

"For every pound of fish processed, two or three pounds are ground up and discharged over the side. One particularly egregious example cited was a 50,000 pound tow of mixed flatfish of marketable species and sizes, where all but 4,000 pounds of roe-in rock sole were thrown over the side."

Eagle reported that a number of fishermen and mates have quit "in disgust over this mode of operation. It seems that some New England fishermen, having suffered through years of a declining fishery, are more aware of the vulnerability of any fishery to wasteful high-grading."

The report went on to point out: "Part of the problem seems to be that many of the smaller floating processors lack the space, equipment and manpower to process anywhere near their catching capacity, or to undertake anything as time-consuming as filleting flatfish. Apparently, the typical solution to this mismatch of fishing and processing capacity is not to fish less, but to throw out all but the most valuable catch. With this kind of short-sighted fishing, a resource with decades of potential could last only a few years."

In a bid to check the situation, Eagle has called for a comprehensive observer program and the imposition of appropriate fishing restrictions upon trawlers. Otherwise, the processor concluded, "the long-term viability of the bottom-fish fishery, including flatfish, appears to be in serious jeopardy."

PHOTO : On-board sorting of Alaska flatfish before the raw material is layer-iced and brought to

PHOTO : port for landing.

PHOTO : Flatfish are mechanically headed, gutted and filleted by a Baader 175 filleting machine

PHOTO : (right). Then each fillet is skinned by a Trio machine. Eagle's hand trimmers can be seen

PHOTO : working in the background.
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Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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