Catch Processing Tech Continues to Evolve in the Face of COVID-19

A varlet fish fillet skinning machine. Photo courtesy of MTC Food Equipment.

In an unprecedented year, catch processing companies have strived to continue innovating in spite of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. And catch processing, while less technologically complex than other aspects of the marine industry, has historically been a major source of innovation.

Heading machines, plate freezers, pinboning machines, de-licing and portioning equipment have all been the beneficiaries of technological advances over the past few years. Many vessels have begun to integrate these technologies on-board, with installations of catch processing technology into more and more ships.

Although catch processing has become more difficult due to the coronavirus pandemic — which stymied global trade and limited access to customers and suppliers — companies have still managed to develop new products which could lead to more effective and efficient processing.

double chamber vacuum packing machine
An MTC Food Equipment double chamber vacuum packing machine. Photo courtesy of MTC.

MTC Food Equipment

COVID-19 has created challenges for MTC Food Equipment Inc., a worldwide supplier of new and pre-owned Seafood Processing Machinery.

Poulsbo, Wash.-based MTC — which sells a variety of de-heading machines, filleting machines, freezing equipment and mincing machines — was classified as an essential business by the government, and thus was able to continue operations during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the effects of the health crisis led to many of their clients delaying machinery upgrades.

“A lot of renovations got put on hold during COVID,” MTC representative Todd Comstock explained. “A lot of companies just wanted to make it through the season last year.”

Additionally, international shipping has been made much more complicated by the pandemic.

“There’s not a lot going on internationally and the biggest part of that is the shipping,” said Comstock. “The shipping is a disaster right now. The cost is outrageous.”

Comstock reported that the costs of shipping many products had doubled since the beginning of the pandemic. For shipping a freezer from Asia, the price this year was $8,500, up more than 100% from the pre-COVID price of $3,800. Additionally, even accessing a shipping container was difficult for MTC, which reported that containers were in short supply.

pin bone remover
A Kaj Olesen dual lane pin bone remover. Photo courtesy of MTC.

Comstock is more optimistic about this coming year. Several of the machines MTC delivers have seen recent upgrades. Their pinboning machines have seen an improvement in efficiency, Comstock reported. Recently, more companies have been willing to make investments in new machinery.

“We’ve seen a few companies upgrading in the last few months,” said Comstock. “The salmon season is winding down now, so we’ll see what’s happening in the coming weeks.” 

Marel and Valka

Elsewhere in the catch processing world, two major Iceland-based processing companies—Marel and Valka—have joined forces. In July, the Iceland-based international food-processing corporation Marel agreed to acquire over 90% of the share capital of fish-processing company Valka in a sale that is expected to be officially completed later this year.

Helgi Hjálmarsson, who founded Valka in 2003 after nine years at Marel, will soon take on the role of Marel’s director of solution integrity.

“By joining Marel you could say we are moving back home because both companies share the same vision and passion for developing high-tech processing solutions that transform the way fish is processed in a sustainable way,” Hjálmarsson remarked. “I am confident that by joining Marel, we are creating a winning team that is well equipped for greater success.”

“We are excited to join forces with Valka, an innovative provider of advanced processing solutions for the fish industry,” said Marel Executive Vice President Guðbjörg Heiða Guðmundsdóttir. “Valka is technologically very strong and has good insight into market needs. Together the companies will build on the best of both, increase scale, accelerate innovation and strengthen our combined offering to continue to provide our customers with best-in-class processing solutions in the growing food processing industry.”

Marel is displaying several of its latest products at this year’s China Fisheries Expo, which takes place Oct. 27-29 at the Hongdao International Convention and Exhibition Center in Qingdao.

These products include the I-Slice 135, a fixed-weight, fixed-length and fixed thickness slicer with high stability, minimum handling and minimum waste; and the I-Cut 130 PortionCutter, which cuts fresh, boneless salmon into fixed weight and fixed length portions.

In addition, Marel reports that its compact grader has been improved, making grading easier with a user-friendly interface and multiple programs. These enhancements, Marel says, will significantly reduce waste for processors of all sizes.

Skaginn 3X

Skaginn 3X, a member of the Knarr consortium, has continued to evolve and innovate this past year, making a couple major installments in recent months.

Skaginn 3X’s Sub-Chilling system, which chills fish onboard, keeping the product fresh and unfrozen is being integrated on Norwegian fishing company Noruega A/S’s new trawler Havfjord. The vessel will be among the first of its kind in the North Sea to utilize this technology, according to Skaginn 3X.

“We take great pride in providing our customers with the highest quality seafood available. To be a leader in this area, you need the very best of tools, at all levels, without any compromise,” Noruega A/S CEO Carl Aamodt said. “We chose Sub-Chilling,  a tried and tested method that would guarantee the best results.”

Skaggin 3X reports that the Sub-Chilling system has proven very successful in both onshore operations and onboard, delivering a firmer product that holds up far better during processing and which has a longer shelf life and better yield every step of the way.

The system is set to be delivered to Havfjord this autumn.

Additionally, Icelandic Pelagic processor Loðnuvinnslan (LVF) has contracted Skaginn 3X to deliver a new pelagic processing system for its operation in Fáskrúðsfjörður, Iceland. 

The new system is designed to increase automation and processing capacity as well as improve yield. Skaggin 3X says that the system it’s providing will support production of up to 400 tons of pelagic per day.

“It’s very important to be able to work as closely with the supplier as we’ve been able to do in this project with Skaginn 3X,” LVF Managing Director Friðrik Már Guðmundsson said. “Their expertise and our experience have resulted in the creation of a promising new solution for our entire pelagic factory. The upgrade will increase the automation of our operation and enable us to increase our production capacity.”

Skaginn 3X’s system includes high-tech plate freezers and an automatic palletizing system. The technology is to be integrated with existing equipment at the LVF plant.


Norwegian company Optimar, which specializes in automated fish processing systems for use on board fishing vessels, has also seen recent success, supplying its largest Optilicer sea lice removal device to Norway-based fishery company Alsaker Fjordbruk’s new cargo ship, Kristopher Tronds.

The Optilicer is a sustainable method of removing sea lice on salmon, trout and lumpfish. It de-lices using only lukewarm water, as opposed to other de-licing treatments that use chemicals.

“The Optilicer allows the fish to swim through hoses before entering a tub,” explained Optimar’s Sales Manager Håvard Worren. “That’s where the fish is carried carefully through the Optilicer by water currents. The water holds 30 degrees to make the lice let go of the fish before it goes back to the cage. The fish that has been de-liced is transported to its own department.”

Worren says that technologies like the Optilicer are vital because of the harmful effects and resilience of lice. Fish farms sometimes experience outbreaks of sea lice that make their products completely unmarketable.

“There are many different methods to de-lice, and we need them all because of the adaptability of the lice,” Worren explained.

The Optilicer technology is already being utilized by the Atlantic salmon company Sinkaberg Hansen, both at-sea and on land.

“To treat fish during low sea-temperature is a huge challenge,” said Bjørn Gillund, Sinkaberg Hansen’s Quality Manager. “But the Optilicer allows us to treat the fish even on cold days in November and December.”

The version of the Optilicer that was delivered to Kristoffer Tronds—dubbed the Optilicer Ultra—also uses a self-contained refrigerated seawater unit, which makes it possible to use refrigerated sea water to cool down the tanks. The recovered heat from engines and exhaust is used to heat the Optilicer. The product can handle 600 tons of fish every hour, twice as much as the original Optilicer.

Alsaker Fjordbruk’s ship Kristoffer Tronds is 297.5 feet long and the first of its scale to handle transportation, de-licing, heat treatment and sorting of the fish onboard, Optimar reports. 

“We have good experience with Optilicer from a previous vessel and Optimar was the supplier capable of delivering the capacity we were looking for,” said Alsaker Fjordbruk Operation Manager Hans Helge Vik.

Optimar reports that the vessel has been through stringent testing during the last couple months and the results are very promising.

“We have already run the Optilicer on one of our locations and sent 2,000 tons of fish through the system,” Project Manager Olav Nygård said. “The results are really good.”