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