A Custom Seafood Processors employee cleans salmon fillets before they are vacuum packed and frozen Wednesday. The fish processor's freezer cools fish to -60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Photo by Patrice Kohl
In the summer, fishermen from all over the world descend on the Kenai Peninsula to live out their fishing dreams.
As delicious as Alaska fish may be, chances are many out-of-state fishermen will catch more halibut, sockeye, king and other fish than they can eat before they return home. What a shame it would be, however, for a fisherman not to enjoy every bite of delicious wild Alaska fish he has caught, and enjoy it at its best.
Don’t despair quite yet. You might just be able to have your fishcake and eat it too.
For those who are leaving the state but don’t want to leave without their fish, processors all over Kenai and Soldotna are waiting, ready to freeze, can or smoke your fish and deliver it to your home or package it for a plane trip.
But fishermen need to take several important steps to to ensure they return with the best quality fish.
It may be tempting during a multi-day fishing spree to throw your fish in a cooler and not deal with until several days later, fishermen will likely regret careless handling later on.
When you invest the time and money to come to Alaska to catch fresh fish, failing to take the final steps to ensure the quality of the fish you take home is senseless, said Matty Bowers, who has worked for Custom Seafood Processors in Soldotna for six years.
“Don’t cut corners,” she urged.
First, after you have landed your fish, consider whether you want to fillet your fish yourself. On halibut charters, guides will usually fillet your fish for you, but if you fish from an unguided boat, or are catching your fish on the river bank, you have two options: you can fillet the fish yourself, or two, you can have it filleted by a processor.
If you have never filleted a fish or are not confident in your abilities you may want to choose option two.
A poor fish fillet job can waste large chunks of meat.
When a fish is properly filleted, fishermen can expect approximately a 50 percent yield from salmon and approximately a 40 percent yield from halibut, Bowers said.
If you do not plan to fillet your own fish, however, it might still be a good idea to at least gut your fish. Particularly if you do not plan to take your fish to a processor right away.
The quality of your fish is likely to be better if you store it gutted, Bowers said.
And fish should be chilled not frozen before you deliver it to a processor.
Processors have to thaw frozen fish to process it. And if you ask your processor for frozen vacuum sealed fillets, it will be frozen thawed, then refrozen, which can lead to the formation of ice crystals, freezer burn and, consequently, low-quality meat.
“It’s not always that noticeable, but people who eat fish a lot, they’ll notice,” Bowers said.
And if you are returning with or shipping frozen fillets, your fish needs to be packed properly.
“Some people think they can just throw fish in their luggage or in a (cardboard) box, and that just doesn’t work,” Bowers said.
Instead, fishermen should pack frozen fillets in a cooler or Styrofoam box, she said.
Since processors freeze fish at colder temperatures than can be reached using a conventional freezer, fisherman should not use cubed ice when packing their fish.
“It is better to use nothing at all than cube ice,” Bowers said.
Processors use blast freezers, which cool meat to temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees, so rather than keeping the fish cold, conventional ice actually accelerates thawing.
The best way to keep your fish cold after it has been frozen by a processor is to either insulate it using newspaper or Styrofoam or to use frozen gel packs.
Although dry ice is effective in keeping your fish cold, some processors avoid using it because shipping companies and airlines often have strong restrictions limiting its use.
If you plan to use dry ice, be sure to check your airline or shipping company about their regulations in advance.
Fishermen who plan to ship their fish need to be sure someone will be available to receive the fish when it arrives.
Bowers recalled a customer who sent frozen fish to someone as a surprise with disastrous results.
The fish was delivered on Friday, just after the recipient had left home for the weekend.
“So they got home on Monday and found a box of rotten fish on their doorstep,” she said.
When planing to take fish home, fishermen also need to consider the time required to process their fish.
When processors aren’t busy they can fillet and package your meat in as little as five hours, but as they get busy, particularly near the end of July, processing could take a day or more.
But not all hope is lost for a fish caught just hours before your flight home.
For fishermen with good quality fish, some processors offer what they call an exchange pool, which allows fishermen to take their catch to a processor, and exchange it for fish that has already been processed.
But if you plan to exchange your fish, be sure to handle it well.
“They’re pretty picky about the fish they’ll put into the exchange pool,” Bowers said.
Finally, fishermen who want to take their fish abroad often have additional hurtles to jump that can involve extensive paper work and about $50 in document delivery fees.
Every country has different restrictions, and Bower urged fishermen visiting from abroad to complete any necessary documents before their fishing trip even begins.
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