If cats can smell in their dreams, the seafood processing facility I visited Monday must be their idea of a smorgasbord in heaven. One hundred miles inland, this place smells like the Pacific. I've spent countless hours talking to seafood distributors, but what really goes on at this critical link in the seafood supply chain? I wanted a firsthand peek inside their black box. The experience was chilling, and not because I forgot to wear gloves.
The company I visited processes 300,000 to 400,000 pounds of seafood each week, selling to supermarkets and restaurant chefs (including ours). More than half of their sales volume is salmon, of which 75 to 80 percent is farmed. (We only buy the wild stuff though.)
Dozens of pallets of salmon trucked 1,500 miles from ocean pens in British Columbia. They are stored in a large room consistently chilled to 36 degrees F. The fish are packed in uniform-sized disposable boxes weighing 100 pounds each; one-quarter of the weight is ice. Everything in the room is white—the lab coats we're wearing, Styrofoam boxes, fluorescent ceiling bulbs. It looks like a morgue for the sea.
Conveyor belts and cutting stations occupy a larger, slightly warmer room. Most seafood distributors "process" products instead of simply delivering whole fish. Here I saw workers efficiently decapitating thousands of fish, removing spines, and chopping off tails. The heads and bellies are dropped in separate 250-gallon tanks to be sold for other purposes. The spines and tails are discarded. Even with these volumes, there aren't enough of these bits for the company to bother selling them—as pet food, fertilizer, or anything else. One wonders whether this step ought to occur near the salmon farm, where there could be enough byproducts to sell them, or whether a smaller company near the distributor could develop this as a business opportunity. Locavorism for pet food, anyone?