(Note: The following article ran on Pages 1 and 10 of the Friday, Sept. 11, 2015, edition of the Daily Sitka Sentinel. It is reprinted here with permission.)
By TOM HESSE
Daily Sitka Sentinel Staff Writer
In a story that’s going to have a lot of digits, the number 12 might be the most important.
All canned goods have a coded number on the bottom that gives the location of where the food came from, when it was canned and who packaged it.
If the code on the bottom of canned salmon starts with a number 12, it means it was canned in Sitka. It also means the Sitka Sound Science Center received a one-cent donation for the production of that can of salmon.
And — if you’re Silver Bay Seafoods CEO Rich Riggs — it’s also a call-out to the fans of your favorite football team.
“So if you’re a (Seattle) Seahawks fan, that’s good news,” Riggs said.
Silver Bay has just wrapped up the inaugural year of its canning operation. The $7 million capital investment was the latest expansion of the Sitka-based company, founded in 2007 at the old Alaska Pulp Corp. mill site where it processed salmon for the fresh and frozen fish market.
Before Silver Bay Seafoods started canning fish there hadn’t been a cannery in Sitka for more than 50 years.
Earlier this week Riggs gave a tour of the canning line to the Sitka Sound Science Center board of directors. It was to celebrate a partnership between the two in which Silver Bay donated one cent for every can that rolled off the line.
Sitka Sound Science Center Director Lisa Busch said it’s one of the best examples there is of an industry supporting research in its own field of business.
“We are linked with the fishing industry and we really wanted to find some stable support, basically from the fishing industry,” Busch said. “We want to be partnered with fishermen and the fishing industry.”
Riggs said the rationale for that connection is obvious at any fish hatchery in the state. And then there’s the fact that the Sitka Sound Science Center is heir to the fishery science program pioneered by Sheldon Jackson College, which closed in 2007.
“You look and a lot of managers in the state have had some educational component at SJ. We firmly believe that sustainable fisheries are critical to Alaska’s communities and Alaska fishermen,” Riggs said.
Canning operations started in the second week of July, with three lines for three different sized cans. The largest cans run through the system at a rate of around 250 per minute, and the other sizes at around 215 cans per minute.
To the Sitka Sound Science Center, 60 minutes of canning results in a donation about equal to the hourly rate of some attorneys.
“I’m really excited that they’re so into this idea,” Busch said. “I feel like it’s really going to allow us to move forward to have somewhat stable funding from the fishing industry.”
Because of business interests, Silver Bay Seafoods won’t disclose how many cans it produced this year, but the first payment to the Sitka Sound Science Center was for $75,000.
The new canning line expands the total Silver Bay Seafoods warehouse footprint to more than 80,000 square feet, Riggs said.
The expansion was headed up by Mike Duckworth, who has 34 years of experience building and maintaining canning lines. One of the first things he had to do was acquire all the pieces, because most of the key elements for canning salmon date back to before his career even started.
“The filling machine has actually not been replicated the same,” Duckworth said. “There have been companies that’s tried to replicate them, but they found out it’s not feasible. They literally put millions of dollars into it and just couldn’t make money off of them.”
The technology dates back to the 1930s and ’40s, and Duckworth said the last major production of filling machines ended in the ’60s.
“Our equipment was probably cast in the late ’40s to the ’50s,” Duckworth said, adding that rebuilding those filling machines is a key piece of canning salmon in Alaska.
“It’s something everybody does. If you’re going to be in the industry then once every 7-10 years you completely rebuild these things,” Duckworth said. “We spent the last year (rebuilding). We had a crew of seasoned, Alaska canning machinists that were working with me in rebuilding and setting up the equipment and getting it ready for installation.”
The old equipment is then blended with new systems to create the modern canning system.
“That plant, it’s just a good blend of the old technology and the new,” Duckworth said.
A special slime line handles the salmon destined for canning, processing them in the usual manner. The fish are fed into one of the three canning lines where more than a dozen employees help monitor the process.
As salmon move along the line, they are packaged in cans that drop down a track from a room in the second story of the warehouse. A machine fills the can while employees check for bones and quality. Between the machine that affixes the lid and the track that kicks out defective cans is a printer that marks each can with a code, all of which start with the number 12.
Once sealed, the cans are loaded onto carts and taken to a separate station to cook before being stacked, wrapped and loaded into trucks to send them as far away as Australia.
Despite a low salmon year, Riggs said the canning operation was close to its projected target this season and there’s room to grow next year.
Tuesday (Sept. 8) was the last day of canning for the year, and it was frozen Bristol Bay sockeye that went through the process. The majority of the fish processed this year, however, cam from Southeast Alaska.
“The concept is the salmon season is over in Southeast, but then we can continue to operate the plant with the sockeye season in Bristol Bay going on,” Riggs said. “So we wanted to increase our capacity to process local fish as well as pick up some of those other Alaska fisheries, and the canning line allows us to do that.”
And if things continue to run as they did this year, the canning line also will allow for continued research into fisheries at the Sitka Sound Science Center.
“It funds all science center things,” Busch said. “So it goes toward research and education programs here in town and also toward our hatchery.”
Funding for independent science centers in Alaska can be tough to come by, and Busch said it can often be from unrelated industries, such as oil. Silver Bay Seafoods has worked with the Sitka Sound Science Center in the past, for example in the center’s cost-recovery fishery, and this new program is a logical continuation of their partnership, Busch said.
“We’re doing stuff that the fishermen are interested in,” Busch said. “To me this is so great that a big company, and a local company at that, are this invested in what we’re doing.”
Or, as Silver Bay Seafoods and the Sitka Sound Science Center are putting it, salmon makes cents.