Cordova Cannery

Visitors experience Alaska’s fish-harvesting industry at Copper River Seafoods

By: Christopher Batin

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Cannery tours offer a unique glimpse into
one of Alaska’s biggest industries.
Most visitors anticipate visiting gold-rush exhibits and displays when visiting Alaska, but few realize the importance of canneries to the development and economic growth of the state.

According to the University of Alaska, the state accounts for more than half the shoreline of the U.S. Alaska’s share of wild fish harvested for human food is about 75 percent of the country’s total, worth upward of $3 billion annually.

The best way to see this mega-industry is a tour of a cannery or fish-processing plant.

A cannery tour is an attraction that visitors appreciate on several levels. I’ve seen tourists stand wide-eyed as large boats unloaded thousands of salmon into holding totes. They’ve poked at fish headed down processing lines, and admired the skills of filleters slicing salmon into bright-red fillets, which are vacuum-sealed or prepared for smoking and canning. And of course they delight in tasting some smoked or processed salmon, halibut or rockfish at tour’s end.

One of the best tours I found in my northern travels is Copper River Seafoods in Cordova. The business was started by owners Pip Fillingham, Bill Bailey and Scott Blake, commercial fishermen who wanted to produce a quality product for market. The result is a multi-faceted canning and fresh-frozen business, and a new business model for canneries that is worth recommending to your clients as part of their Alaska tour package.

“We weren’t really happy with the way the market was going,” said Fillingham. “So we started direct marketing our own fish individually to restaurants, grocery stores and retail outlets.

“We’ve grown very fast,” he said. “We leased a building for eight years, and just purchased our processing building last year. We’re doing $30 million in sales now, which is pretty good for a company that was doing virtually no business 10 years ago.”

Copper River Seafoods bought 3 million pounds of sockeyes in 2006, he said, where in a normal year they buy 1.5 million pounds. Copper River sockeye salmon is prized worldwide for its rich flavor and firmness and fish have commanded prices of up to $20 a pound.

What can your clients expect on a cannery tour? The processing schedule varies day by day. Fish are unloaded and prepared for filleting and processing by 25 to 28 workers in a control line.

Clients will wear a raincoat as they tour a plant as water spray is commonplace and the floors are wet. They’ll see the state-of-the-art machinery used to gut and remove bones. Fillingham pointed out that one section of processing equipment alone costs $250,000.

Of special interest to most visitors is the firsthand look at how fish are smoked, from brine baths to air drying to the actual smoking process. The tour is educational in showing how consumers should process, store and utilize salmon and halibut at home or for the barbecue.

A cannery tour is more than just the processing facility and agents should recommend to clients to take in the total experience.

First of all, next to these canneries are boats and fishermen, who are usually willing to talk to inquisitive tourists who walk the docks. It’s worth an hour for clients to hike down to the boat dock and watch fishermen repair nets, patch boats or stay busy with myriad chores before the next opener. Variety is commonplace, as I’ve seen boats with shrimp, crab, salmon, halibut and other species unload at dockside. In many cases, I was able to buy shrimp directly from the fishermen. Seeing a few hundred thousand shrimp in a hold, rather than a small container at the local grocery store, is an eye-opening experience.

However you cut it, there is nothing fishy about recommending an Alaska cannery tour to your clients, as either a do-it-yourself exploration or a shore-excursion option on their Alaska cruise.


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