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Survey shows fish temperatures soar in transit

Posted: Monday, February 24, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A Kodiak-based fisherman-turned-scientist has discovered that fish shipped fresh from Alaska doesn't always reach its destination that way.

Mark Buckley, managing partner of Digital Observer LLC, found that one shipment of salmon heated up to 62 degrees before being sold to customers in the Midwest.

Buckley said his project, which involved tagging fish with computer-driven, waterproof temperature gauges, arose from a personal interest in the subject.

''It was always my observation that I never really knew what happened to my fish,'' Buckley told the Alaska Journal of Commerce. ''I saw a discrepancy in the quality of the fish emerging from the nets and those that actually found their way onto the supermarket shelves. I saw the loss of markets to farmed fish, and I put two and two together.''

Computerized sensors, or Smart Tags, were programmed with the names of the participating fishermen, processors, and distributors and attached to the fish with an electrician's zip tie. They were further programmed to take the fish's temperature every 30 minutes, Buckley said, and information was stored in a chip with 667 days of memory.

''What we found was that fish warm up at 36,000 feet,'' Buckley said.

Fish that left the processors were enclosed in bubble wrap and sealed in a wet-lock box with a handful of cold gel packs that act as coolant, he said. Fish that came in direct contact with the packs stayed cool. Fish at the bottom of the box warmed up.

The more time fish spent at airports, the more likely it would heat up and degrade.

One shipment of salmon sat on the tarmac at a Chicago airport for 90 minutes in 80-degree heat and warmed to 62 degrees before cargo handlers placed the product in ice. By the time the distributor arrived to retrieve the salmon, it had cooled and the degradation went unnoticed.

Those increases can have a drastic effect on the quality, shelf life and overall marketability of the fish, said Bob Sullivan, president of Chicago-based Plitt Fish Co., a distributor of Alaska salmon who participated in the study.

''For every degree above 33 that a fish hits, the fish loses shelf life, so what you're essentially doing is taking away from the dining experience,'' Sullivan said.

Plitt sells fish to gourmet restaurants and delis. When an Alaska shipment is not up to standards, the fish is tossed out, he said.

''I've had purchasers take a look at some of my Alaska salmon and tell me that they are better off buying red snapper,'' Sullivan said.

Buckley said he intends to continue his study. He is looking for funding that would allow him to duplicate the project next season.

Efforts to track shipments may go as far as developing a bar-code system, Buckley said. He said tracking would increase accountability for an industry where the source of a problem is often hard to pinpoint.

''There's a lot of finger-pointing when things go wrong,'' Buckley said. ''That was fine when Alaska was still the king of salmon, but we're no longer the only salmon in town.''



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