Food Writer's Diary
Alaska's most prolific fishery

Alaska's most prolific fishery

It takes a long time to get to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, unless maybe you start in Akutan or Cold Bay, and even then, you never really know. The weather can be foggy or rainy, windy or snowy, or your flight might be sidetracked for some non-weather-related reason. You might be able to catch a ride on a freighter or a fishing boat, and if you've brought your seasickness pills that might be all right.

I started my trip in New York City and flew from there to Seattle a day before my flight to Alaska. The folks at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute planned it that way: If we caught the 6:10 a.m. flight from Seattle to Anchorage, they reasoned, the chances of us making it to Dutch Harbor on the same day were pretty good. 

A direct flight from Anchorage to “Dutch,” as the locals call it (others call it “Oh, you mean that place where Deadliest Catch is filmed!”), is about three hours. Ours was supposed to be direct, but someone needed to get several hundred pounds of salmon to a community called, appropriately enough, King Salmon. So we went there first, minus some of our luggage, which was bumped to make room for the fish. That was followed by a delay in Cold Bay, which from what I could tell was nothing but a snow-covered runway next to what might have been a warehouse (Wikipedia tells me it has a population of 108).

Apparently, the overcast weather made the likelihood of a quick and successful landing on the Dutch Harbor runway, which is sandwiched between a mountain and the frigid Bering Sea, questionable, so our captain determined that refuelling in Cold Bay was in order. 

That was fine with me.

His skidding during takeoff from Cold Bay was not fine with me — I'm not afraid of flying in airplanes, but I do not like skidding in them — but he didn't ask. It was a small skid, and everyone on the plane accepted it with neither squeal nor scream, but subsequent conversationsn with my fellow passengers indicated that everyone noticed it.

Because you notice when your plane skids.

Landing in Dutch Harbor about six hours after leaving Anchorage and about 40 hours after leaving New York, I wondered why I thought this visit would be a good idea.

But I did it for you, reader, so that I could tell you about Alaska's most prolific seafood product.

It’s not the salmon everyone loves so much, or the king crab whose captors have been made famous by Deadliest Catch. 

It’s pollock. Here’s a picture of a lot of pollock being loaded onto conveyor belts at the Trident processing plant — the largest of its kind in North America — on the nearby island of Akutan.

Pollock is the working horse of Alaska's fishing industry: 1.8 billion pounds of the fish are pulled out of the state’s waters annually — mostly from the Bering Sea, which is the large body of water between the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Strait, and connected bodies of water such as the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta. 

At the beginning of each of the three legs of our flight between Anchorage and Dutch Harbor, our flight attendant gave us the safety demonstration that federal law apparently requires before any flight, regardless of whether the same passengers have already seen the demonstration twice in the past couple of hours. Her explanations of what to do during a water landing bemused me, because if your body splashes into the Bering Sea in February, you freeze to death in a few minutes. That light on your life vest isn't going to help much. 

Except for Akutan, Dutch Harbor is probably the remotest place I’ve ever been, and I’ve been to Iceland. I’ve been to the Moluccas. I’ve been to Toraja, an inland part of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi where, although the people are austensibly Chrisitan, the most important aspect of their religion is that they slaughter as many water buffalo as possible at their loved ones’ funerals. 

Nonetheless, Dutch Harbor’s the largest seafood port, in terms of volume, in North America (Akutan’s No. 2), and for that reason, it hosts captains of industry. Japanese seafood magnates are frequent visitors — they should be, since they own much of the production facilities and buy a lot of what's produced there (so does McDonald’s, which recently started promoting the fact that its Filet-O-Fish is made from Alaska Pollock, but that has been the case for years — more about that later).

Because of Dutch Harbor’s wealthy, powerful and esteemed visitors, so it was explained to me, it has the sort of delicious food that has come to be expected at international ports of call.

That certainly was true at The Grand Aleutian, where we stayed. It had a hell of a wine list, too. Our first night there I picked a nice little French red wine from Cahors and a Spanish Albariño for us to drink with the food at the moderate-sized but high-quality buffet stocked with different preparations of Alaska halibut, cod, salmon and crab. There was prime rib and salad, too, if you were into that sort of thing. It was all made with an attention to detail and focus on freshness that I don't expect at a hotel buffet.

I like a place where food and wine are a priority, but Internet connectivity is not.

When we checked in we asked if they had in-room wifi. 

“Sort of,” the receptionist said, in the homey but worldly way that I’ve found many Alaskans have, as he handed us instructions for in-room connectivity.

The slow loading time in my room gave me a perfect excuse to check out Cape Cheerful, the aptly named bar in the Grand Aleutian, where I drank delicious IPA and chatted with the bartender, who was originally from Queens, and a traveling telecommunications equipment repairman who was in Dutch Harbor to repair telecommunications equipment. 

They explained the challenge of getting to Akutan.

There used to be regular flights via goose, a type of eight-seat ambhibious airplane. But that was discontinued in favor of a hovercraft that took passengers to a landing strip and a larger airplane. The problem was that the weather had to be appropriate both for air and sea travel for that scheme to work, and that didn't happen very often. 

Why, you might be wondering, are these facilities located on inaccessible rocks in the middle of the North Pacific?

Because that's where the fish are. 

Alaska pollock is the United States’ largest fishery in terms of sheer tonnage pulled out of the water, and it’s the largest one in the world to be certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Alaska takes sustainability seriously. Its state constitution requires that its fisheries be maintained according to the “sustained yield principal.” In fact, I’m told a major reason why Alaska sought statehood in the 1950s (it got it in 1959) was because its people didn’t like the way the federal government was exploiting their natural resources. 

Perhaps a result, in part, of this philosophy, is the widespread presence of bald eagles, pictured here lounging on a fishing vessel’s nets at Akutan.

Alaska’s fisheries earn more than $1 billion each year, which is more than $1,300 for every one of Alaska's 700,000 some-odd people. 

Of course, a lot of it doesn’t go to Alaskans. Although the fishing fleet is now all American (it was mostly foreign in the 1970s and ’80s), Japanese companies and American firms from other states own the processing facilties. 

But it’s still a lot of money, and the industry is the state’s largest private employer.

The annual pollock catch was valued at $363 million in 2010, making it the second most valuable fishery, after salmon, whose five species brought in about $600 million that year.

The most valueable part of the pollock is its roe. I’m told that when they can be harvested in their sacks, with both lobes intact, the Japanese consider them to be excellent and prestigious gifts to give to people, who use it as a condiment.

We visited a Unisea facility in Dutch Harbor during our first day there, and the next day we got up early to catch a 6am freighter to Akutan.

We boarded the ship via basket, illustrated here, which with the possible exception of helicopter is now my favorite way to travel.

I took that picture after our four-hour trip, obviously; it’s still dark in Alaska at 6am in February, especially in the Aleutians, which once had their own time zone, an hour ealier than Anchorage.

I’m told the trip was possibly the smoothest on record, which I believe although I slept through most of it — a result of the 5am wakeup call, the motion of the ocean, the anti-seasickness pills and the fact that I was wearing the down jacket I’d bought for the trip that made me feel like I was wrapped in a sleeping bag. 

And then, after being outfitted in rain gear to avoid being drenched in fish splatter, and with headphones with speakers so we could hear our tour guides over the factory’s din (we already had been outfitted in Xtratuf boots), we visited the factory, which could process up to 3.5 million pounds of pollock a day.

Here’s a short video of to give you an idea of what that's like.

The plant is run by 1,200 employees, who come to Akutan from all over the world to work. That’s pretty much all there is to do on Akutan, so they work shifts of at least 12 hours, starting at minimum wage plus overtime, room and board. Since there’s nothing to do but work, you can save a lot of money there, which is why people do it.

Not that Akutan completely lacks charm. It’s pretty in a bleak sort of way.

Here’s what the harbor looks like.

And the Trident plant is a safe place to work: It currently has an accident record of 1.9 “incidents” per year. That can mean anything from a nicked finger to a complete tragedy. With 1,200 employees and so many moving parts, that seems remarkable to me.

Most of the pollock that comes into either Akutan or Dutch Harbor is processed into fillets, which are then layered in rectangles and frozen in large blocks. That’s what McDonald's uses. Specifically, it uses a deep-skin fillet block, which is to say all of the skin is removed, leaving the sort of very light-colored very consistent block that you would expect in a Filet-O-Fish. 

So it’s whole fillets that are frozen into blocks and then cut into Filet-O-Fish shaped rectangles, breaded and fried. 

About 36 percent of the pollock is further processed into surimi, which you might know better as “sea legs,” or, and boy does the pollock industry regret this, “immitation crab.”

Surimi is pollock that’s washed and puréed and washed and puréed over and over again until it’s a gleeming white slurry. It’s then mixed with starches and other binders, phosphates and other things (although it’s still mostly pollock), and then extruded into long thin strips. It looks sort of like fish paper at that point. Then it’s rolled and colored and cut into whatever shapes Trident or Unisea’s customers want. It’s what you’re very likely to eat in a California roll. In Europe it’s sliced into deli meat, and in Japan it’s practically everywhere, and with good reason. It’s an inexpensive source of lean protein — 100 grams of it has 15 grams of protein and about double the amount of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids you need in a day.

You won’t find it in school lunches, though. That’s because of the immitation crab thing. 

They way the pollock people explain in it, surimi was first introduced to the United States at a time when crab prices were extraordinarily high, so its marketers decided it would make for an acceptable crab substitute, which of course it does not. I mean, I like surimi; I ate a fair amount of it as a kid. But it’s not crab. 

But it’s also not fake. It’s real pollock (mostly, with the starches and so on that I just mentioned).

But as far as the U.S. Department of Agricultue is concerned, it’s not protein. It’s “other.”

Such are the vicissitudes of food and government.

After our tour, we were fed lunch in the sumptuous office penthouse — fried halibut, steamed snow crab, tempura vegetables and so on — and then waited while our keepers determined how to get us back to Dutch Harbor. 

With such beautiful weather, the hovercraft-to-airstrip-to-airplane-to-Dutch-Harbor option seemed to be the way to go, but the fog came in before the hovercraft did, so instead we hitched a ride on a fishing vessel named The Dominator.

This is The Dominator.

It was manned by very friendly fisherman, who set up a DVD for us to watch and made caramel corn, and told us not to be embarrassed if we threw up, because that happened sometimes (it didn’t this time).

I mostly napped again, although we all spoke briefly with The Dominator’s observor. 

Every pollock fishing vessel has an observor to monitor bycatch and in general make sure everything is done according to regulations.

Then I took this picture of the fishermen untangling their nets, and took another nap. 

We returned to the Grand Aleutian, and I ordered a Rioja and a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for dinner, enjoying the fact that wine-ordering duties had been given to me for the trip.

There’s more to say — our education about the crab fishery, the mostly uneventful return to Anchorage, the remarkable restaurant at the Dutch Harbor airport that had everything from pork banh mi to meat loaf to sushi — but this blog entry’s alredy unreadably long, and I have other stories to write.

February 25: This blog entry has been updated to correct several typographical errors.

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