Bad Storm Inspires Plan for Environmentally Sustainable Processing Vessel

Photo courtesy of Northline Seafoods.

A seafood processor stung by an autumn storm in 2020 that grounded and destroyed its processing barge may be back in Bristol Bay for the 2024 salmon fishery with a new vertically integrated vessel that could produce higher quality fillets to sell year-round in an environmentally superior facility.

“We developed the Hannah to produce higher quality fish through a more efficient process that benefits both fishermen and customers,” Ben Blakey, an industry veteran and chief executive officer of Northline Seafoods, with offices in Bellingham, Wash. and Sitka, Alaska said. “This project is a continuation of Northline’s commitment to innovation and environmental sustainability in the fishing industry.”

Blakey said he hopes this one-of-a-kind vertically integrated vessel inspires others.

“The bay needs more innovative people,” he said.

Since the September gale, with its 80-mile-an-hour winds blew the Northline’s floating processor ashore in Bristol Bay, not far from Ekuk, the company has become its own general contractor, designing the Hannah, and was slated to begin construction of this new vessel in January of 2023 in Bellingham.

Plans call for revolutionizing salmon processing by deep freezing fish whole in Bristol Bay during the summer and hauling them back to Bellingham, where the salmon would be stored, reprocessed and distributed year-round all from one vessel.

The final product is to be delivered to the market with a high quality and a more sustainable environmental footprint, the company said in a Nov. 30 statement. Operating the Hannah would save some 217,000 gallons for diesel fuel compared with typical fish processing and transportation methods, the company said.  Every piece of every fish will be used, meaning less waste.

“We don’t discard or throw away any parts of the fish,” Blakey remarked.

Flash freezing will protect the skin of the salmon, minimizing the need for plastic packaging, and the overall processing plan will significantly reduce carbon emissions with fewer steps between fishermen and customers.

The new barge itself is designed to carry 14 million pounds of fish, Blakey said in an interview with Fishermen’s News.

“It will create more sustainable jobs for our company. We are looking to work year-round with seafood specialists,” he said. 

The onboard refrigeration system allows the fish to be flash frozen whole, so when it moves to Bellingham at the end of the season processing can be spread out over time, creating year-round employment for processors, engineers, maintenance staff, sales and logistics personnel and corporate management.

“If you can provide a good wage year-round, you increase your opportunity to maintain good people. Our engineers and processors we work with in Bristol Bay may also work with us in Seattle,” Blakey said.

Most salmon processing facilities rely on shipping containers and cold storage,” he said. Traditional cold storage chills the fish to between minus-5 and minus-10 degrees, but the Hannah would store the fish at minus-25. The fish would then be stored without having to move them until they’re processed and distributed throughout the year.

Blakey said he anticipates selling the processed fish to distributors to put into food service and other markets looking for upscale produce.

“The majority of our fish complement existing brands or go into new premium options,” he said.

The project came together in late November after Northline Seafoods closed on a $40 million federal loan made possible through the Biden administration’s “Build Back Better” initiative, packaged as a U.S. Department of Agriculture backed guarantee Food Supply Chain loan.

It is financed via Greater Commercial Lending (GCL), which provides loans to businesses and organizations in underserved and rural communities. 

Northline also teamed with Zachary Scott, a Seattle-based investment banking firm with deep ties to the seafood industry, to raise $62.5 million of capital to support the company in its development.