Do Onboard Handling Practices Affect Salmon Quality?
Do handling practices affect salmon quality?
Absolutely! Casting a net is the beginning of an immense responsibility that fishermen share. The practices in place contribute largely to how healthy and appetizing the fish will be.
All hands on deck
Once a fish leaves the water, its freshness can only be maintained--never improved. This makes handling methods of utmost importance. It is up to the skipper to uphold a culture of intentional practices within his or her crew. All hands on deck must value quality over quantity to contribute to an industry that self-imposes high standards.
Maintaining nature’s integrity
Award-winning author, journalist, and fishermen Paul Greenberg says we must hunt fish “with care and eat them with the fullness of our appreciation. We must come to understand that eating the last wild food is, above all, a privilege.’’
Most people today do not have the privilege of eating fresh fish straight off the boat. Therefore they are dependent on middlemen who handle fish from the moment it leaves the water up to its final presentation. The first middle man, who handles the fish in what is potentially its most vulnerable state, is the fishermen.
Methods of maintenance
In maintaining the integrity of nature’s delicate work, fish should be handled with care to avoid bruising. In Bristol Bay, where I fish, slides and/or rubber mats have become common methods of quality control to prevent fish from meeting harsh landings onboard. The fish should be immediately bled to decrease chances of future bruising, then dropped into “floating” refrigerated or iced holds where the core temperature of the fish can approach 32°F. Improper handling can lead to squished or damaged fish, more rapid decay, and bacteria growth.
Different fisheries address handling practice standards in their own way, while methods of achieving those standards can vary widely among boats in the same fishery.
In Bristol Bay, the top quality fish comes from boats who meet all the standards mentioned above. On the Anasazi, we float bled fish in refrigeration systems using slides and mats. We take pride in our onboard handling practices and receive top scores in our fishery for quality.
What are Good Onboard Handling Practices in Bristol Bay?
As the fish come onboard, we pick them out of the net onto a “salmon slide”— a vinyl tarp that cushions and funnels the fish over a mat where they are bled on their way to holds. There they are kept afloat in refrigerated seawater (between 33-39°F) until they are delivered to the larger holds of a tender vessel.
In the Leader Creek fleet, the salmon must be delivered to tenders within 12 hours of being caught. Tenders are larger boats that transport fish from designated districts to shore-based processors. They collect the salmon from the fleet and deliver it in chilled seawater that is typically around 33°F.
Ideally, the fish are caught, delivered to a tender, transported to the processing plant, filleted, pin boned and frozen within 24-36 hours of being caught. As you can imagine, regulating quality over that length of time requires commitment and integrity.
What are Some Examples of Bad Onboard Handling Practices in Bristol Bay?
You guessed it—pretty much disregarding any good practice is a bad practice. Unfortunately, the incentive to cut corners exists when fishermen value quantity over quality. It’s easily less expensive and faster to avoid bleeding, refrigerated and floating techniques, or slides. Without slides and mats, fish meet a hard aluminum or fiberglass deck. This results in immediate bruising hidden just beneath the skin. A deep bruise can show through an entire fillet.
If fish are not bled they are more susceptible to bruising every step along the way for the next 24 hours plus. If fish are thrown into a dry fish hold without chilled water or ice, engine rooms can contribute to their temperature reaching 60°F or warmer. The fish on bottom can bare the weight of over a thousand pounds!
Nothing can be done to undo any mistreatment of fish. If this quality of fish is still accepted by other fisheries, it will water down the quality of the market. It will end up an inferior product with a reduced shelf life and a bad customer experience.
Leader Creek Fisheries
I have been fishing for Leader Creek Fisheries since 2002. We have a cooperative relationship with the processor that buys our fish. We have a profit share agreement.
We fishermen must meet the standards in place to receive all the possible quality incentives: We need to bleed, use salmon slides, and deliver floating fish that are less than 39°F to receive the top price. Our goal has been to raise our own bar and inspire others to follow suit.The processor has Quality Control inspectors on the tenders to hold the fishermen accountable. If a boat delivers warm fish, does not use a salmon slide, or does not bleed or float their fish, it will be documented and they will be docked compensation. If the incident becomes a pattern, that boat will lose the privilege of being a part of the fleet.
Financial incentives are intended to compensate fishermen for their efforts to value quality over quantity—and it’s working. I have seen incentives add up to be nearly half of the final price. My perspective at this point is, If we can figure it out, everyone can.
At the end of the day, as a fisherman in the aftermarket, I have the extra incentive to treat each fish as if it were one I am bringing home to my family.