Bristol Bay's newest processor hopes to increase fish quality, prices

Northline Seafoods plans to haul 300,000 pounds per day.

During this gigantic Bristol Bay sockeye season, Northline Seafoods has been quietly testing its floating processor, hauling in anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 pounds a day, co-founder Ben Blakey told IntraFish

It's small numbers compared to Northline's goal of 300,000 pounds per day, but so far, it's going well, Blakey said. As the 13th salmon processor in a tight-knit Bristol Bay, he said he and Co-founder Pat Glaab are treading carefully. 

"We're not looking to steal somebody's fleet," he explained. 

The idea came about when Glaab, who has already built nearly a dozen processing plants throughout Alaska, approached Blakey, who had experience in seeking solutions for higher-volume fisheries to retain quality. 

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"When fish come in at higher volumes, how do you deal with it without losing quality?" Blakey said. "People have been trying to fix that for a while. The idea was to create a processor that could operate in high volume situations and also lower volume situations and not suffer." 

For the testing, Northline is using a smaller floating platform, Blakey said, "something that's replicable and easy enough to manage." 

The idea for the processor is to "operate as both a fish buyer and fish processor all in the same floating platform." It will be able to operate independent of tendering, relying on flush ice to provide more consistent temperatures. 

While Blakey and Glaab are using a cobbled-together processor for now, they estimate the cost of building one from scratch is between $5 million ( €4.21 million) and $10 million (€8.42 million).

In addition to increasing the fish quality by reducing the time they are out of the water, the floating processor will only need to employ about 20 people, one-tenth of the number most processors need. 

Therefore, Blakey said, they can afford to pay employees "significantly" more -- the starting wage is $15 (€12.63) per hour. 

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"The goal is to encourage more Alaskans that wouldn't otherwise work in the seafood industry to give it a try," Blakey said. 

As for next steps, Northline has applied to an Army Corps of Engineers permit for a boat ramp to haul boats up to 75-feet wide, which they hope to obtain by the end of September. 

In early October, the company will do an overhaul, adding higher horsepower compressors and more equipment needed to increase the volume it can handle, Blakey said. 

"We think this will be good for the whole industry," he said. "Our goal is to add value to the fish that are already there. The goal is to increase the ex-vessel value of fish that are coming out if Bristol Bay and Alaska as a whole."

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