Anchorage processor seeks value-added seafood products

Food scientist tests the waters

Posted: Thursday, May 17, 2001

An Alaska food scientist is gearing up to start a pilot project this summer to produce value-added Alaska seafood products. The goal is to wow overseas markets and increase economic returns for Alaska fishers and processors.

"I'm determined that we're going to build up demand," said Gail Marshall, president of Phoenix Food Consulting Ltd. of Anchorage. "I believe it can be done. My goal is to get more value from our fish."

Marshall came to work in Alaska in February 1998 as vice president of research and development for Alaska Seafood International. However, she has monitored the Alaska fishing industry since the 1970s as she worked in the food producing and fisheries industries. Marshall left the troubled fish plant last June but decided to stay in Alaska and immediately started her own firm, Phoenix Food Consulting.

"I have an undying passion for this industry," she said.

Now Marshall is preparing a grant proposal she plans to submit to the National Marine Fisheries Service in early May. She also hopes to secure state funding. The 18-month project aims to boost economic development and increase markets by developing new products from Alaska pink and chum salmon, exploring year-round secondary processing and considering new markets.

New products could include stand up, microwavable pouches of salmon chowders, soups, rice and noodle dishes. Marshall also will study establishing a new co-op among several villages to produce and market finished products.

"My goal is fairly simple this year. I hope to get one to two canneries to put in a pilot line and see if there is a market in Britain or South Korea," she said.

Manufacturing value-added seafood products in the state could give Alaska an extra boost in global markets and add jobs, she said.

Marshall's expertise backs up her plans. She earned a bachelor's degree in food science, a master's degree in fisheries biology and a doctorate in food science, all from Louisiana State University.

She has worked for the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service and Department where she helped companies solve processing problems by boosting shelf life and product quality for finfish, crawfish, crab and oysters.

Marshall has conducted research and development plus product development for food producers that include ConAgra Poultry Co. in Arkansas. In Alaska four of her products developed for Alaska processors have won first place awards in the Symphonies of Salmon and Seafood. Marshall also has written technical articles on Alaska salmon for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

"Gail's work is important because she is bringing her expertise and experience from working with other seafood producers to Alaska," said ASMI executive director Barbara Belknap. "She overcame problems they had been facing and doesn't seem ready to take no for an answer.

"We're also fortunate because she could work anywhere in the world with her qualifications, but she has chosen to stay in Alaska. In a short period of time, she has developed a commitment to helping our fishing communities in a way that has not been done for a long time -- through improved technology."

Marshall also works with members of the World Trade Center Alaska. Three years ago the group began a new initiative to develop joint ventures between European companies and Alaska seafood producers, said executive director Robin Richardson.

Today the organization nurtures relationships daily with overseas firms via an electronic messaging group, and members have said the effort has led to transactions, she said.

According to Richardson, Marshall joined the group six months ago, gleaning information on current world markets as well as providing expertise as a food technician. Marshall also spoke in April at a World Trade Center Alaska forum in Homer.

Marshall's experience is important and unique to the industry in Alaska "because she is an expert in food and on fish and how fish is made into food," Richardson said. "We need more people like her."

Marshall is working with the World Trade Center Alaska and Sourdough Productions to organize the first Alaska Seafood Forum March 5-6, 2002 at the Egan Civic & Convention Center in Anchorage. The event, scheduled in conjunction with the annual Alaska Foodservice and Hospitality Expo, will feature technology and processes to support Alaska seafood processing businesses.

At the forum Marshall intends to demonstrate high-tech food processing techniques to Alaska fishers.

"One of the best jobs I ever had was working for the extension service in Louisiana," she said, remembering work with crawfish processors to increase their economic benefits. "I loved helping people do better at what they do."

Phoenix Food Consulting's work ranges from fish handling on boats, shelf life and microbiology studies to product development. Marshall works with suppliers, fishers and processors.

Although new ideas and technology won't produce significant economic payouts overnight, Marshall is convinced technology and value-added products are important.

"I believe so strongly that with what we have I know we can get more money to fishermen and to processors," she said.

Marshall has noted that Alaskans are concerned about the future of the industry.

"While it always seems that the time is right for such efforts, it seems that it has become more important now than ever," she said. "People are very concerned about how fishing limits, restrictions and catch quotas will affect a way of life that has supported them and their families for generations.

"We have to and can work smart. We must develop products that are practical and cost effective. We must help grow economic opportunities for many communities in Alaska."

Nancy Pounds is the assistant editor at the Anchorage-based Journal of Commerce.

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