Warming up to 'iceless' fish shipments could save millions
Waterless transport technology has won several international “best invention” awards for Bonifacio Comandante of the Philippines, who presented the concept as his master’s degree thesis two years ago at a San Francisco university. Since then, investors from Australia and Japan have partnered with Comandante to bring the benefits and savings to their countries.
Comandante’s transport process involves bathing fish in a proprietary mixture that puts them in a soothing state of hibernation.
“It’s an organic compound found naturally in the water, and I just found a way to trigger a hibernation process in fish,” Comandante said in a phone interview as he was on his way to the International Boston Seafood Show.
The hibernating fish are kept at a controlled temperature and shipped upright in a vertical position to ensure that their gill covers remain open. Comandante said he has tested the transport method on 12 species of fish with 100 percent success.
“From the Philippines, we’re shipping three kinds of groupers, two kinds of snappers and many crustaceans and mollusks,” he said, estimating the savings from Southeast Asia to Hong Kong at $85 million for live products.
The inventor recently signed a $4 million contract to apply the technology to Australia’s top seafood exports to the United States and Japan: tuna, rainbow trout and salmon.
“In Australia, we were successful in putting live salmon into hibernation for 10 to 12 hours,” he said.
Comandante said his shipping method has an even bigger application for fresh fish because it eliminates the need for ice.
“Normally when you send fresh fishes, you need ice to go along with the fish. Without ice, you save somewhere between 20 to 25 percent in freight costs,” he said. “If you figure the volume that is traded worldwide that goes to Hong Kong, China and Japan, the instant savings would be about $248 million.”
The mixture can also be applied to fish processing.
“You can time the death of the fishes before you process them,” Comandante said.
His Philippines-based company, Buhi International Group, is awaiting an international patent before fully commercializing the waterless shipping technology in selected countries. Comandante said he is very interested in networking with Alaska producers.
Meanwhile, the inventor is a finalist in a May 21 World Bank competition for another innovative project that boosts the nutritional content of shellfish by 70 percent.
“The vitamins and green algae I use make up an acronym for Viagra, but it’s not what you think,” he said with a laugh.
Ketchikan counts on shellfish
Construction is set to begin this summer on the Oceans Alaska Marine Science Center near Ketchikan. The new nonprofit was created last year when the state and the Ketchikan Gateway Borough donated 28 acres to build the facility, which aims to be the hub for building a global industry for Alaska shellfish.
“Economic development is the primary thing. If we look at what the opportunities are for year-round, sustainable jobs in Southeast, Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula and along the Aleutians, the shellfish industry is one of the best options we have. A focus will be on how we can help the industry grow,” said project manager John Sund.
Alaska currently has 34 shellfish farms throughout Southeast Alaska and 27 in the Southcentral region — Prince William Sound and near Homer. Values last year, primarily centered on oysters, totaled just more than $676,000, split almost evenly between the two regions.
Sund said if the dive fisheries for geoduck clams, sea cucumbers and urchins are included, total shellfish values for Southeast Alaska top $7 million. Research economists estimate the region’s shellfish value could reach $50 million to $100 million if production was increased through aquaculture.
Sund believes the state could enjoy similar financial gains and points to New Zealand as an example. “The green mussel industry there struggled for years until they formed a collaboration with the government and researchers, and learned how to freeze the mussels. That took them into the world market from $18 million to a $100 million industry,” he said, pointing to similar successes with cultured scallops in Japan, clams in Florida, and oysters and geoduck clams in British Columbia.
Ray RaLonde, an aquaculture expert with Alaska Sea Grant, agrees that shellfish aquaculture provides huge opportunities for Alaska.
“Right now there is growing demand for Alaska shellfish — what we lack is enough production,” RaLonde said, adding that co-operative farming is the best way for the fledgling industry to move forward.
In Ketchikan, projects are already underway even before the Oceans Alaska facility is built.
“We don’t need a building to help move the research projects and our mission forward,” Sund said.
The Oceans Alaska board is seeking an executive director.
Lost in translation
Reports from Japanese newspapers that major buyers were bailing out of Alaska’s biggest herring fishery at Bristol Bay were way off base.
A thorough canvassing by Dillingham radio station KDLG revealed that five processors have signed up to purchase Togiak roe herring: Icicle, Trident, Norquest, Yardarm Knot and North Pacific Seafoods. A Norquest spokesman said poor prices and reduced demand for herring have forced processors to scale back their operations in the Togiak fishery, and several will be operating with fewer tenders and a smaller fleet.
The Togiak herring quota this year is 26,000 tons, but state fishery manager Tim Sands told KDLG that his poll of processors indicates they only intend to buy about 16,000 tons. The Togiak roe herring fishery, which typically gets underway in May, was worth $2.6 million to fishermen last year.