Cooling Your Catch – Pacific Fishing Cover Story

May 3rd, 2018

Refrigerated seawater systems make a splash in Bristol Bay. Pacific Fishing’s March issue takes a look at how things are changing in the Bay known for the world’s largest sockeye runs. Reprinted here with permission from the publication.

Cooling Your Catch

Refrigerated Seawater Systems Make a Splash in Bristol Bay

BY WESLEY LOY AND DANIEL MINTZ

More and more Bristol Bay salmon fishermen are installing refrigerated seawater systems (RSW) on their boats. Photo courtesy of IMS.

A chilling revolution continues to sweep Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

Hundreds of boats are now outfitted with refrigerated seawater systems (RSW), which allow crews to deliver higher quality catches to processing plants. And more skippers are installing initial or replacement RSW systems at a rapid clip.

It’s a departure from the ugly legacy of the Bristol Bay fishery, where fishermen used to focus almost solely on how many sockeye salmon they could catch and pack into “dry” boats. With no refrigeration or even ice aboard, fish often degraded.

In recent years, fish quality has become more of a priority.

It’s a priority that pays. The Bristol Bay Fishermen’s Association reports major processors including Alaska General, Icicle, North Pacific, Ocean Beauty, Peter Pan, Silver Bay, and Trident paid an RSW bonus of 15 to 20 cents per pound during the 2017 season.

That means sockeye worth a base ex-vessel price of $1 per pound (as was the case in 2017) can instead pay $1.20 with RSW.

Bristol Bay sockeye from RSW-equipped boats command a substantially higher price from processors. Photo courtesy of Chris Miller.

Quality Challenge: Bristol Bay, in remote Southeast Alaska, is the scene of the world’s largest sockeye runs, with the industry typically taking tens of millions of the fish every summer.

Because the salmon storm in during a compressed season of only a few weeks, catches can be huge, and properly caring for the fish is burdensome.

But the industry is accepting the challenge to improve Bristol Bay’s reputation by aiming for higher quality – and higher prices.

Over the years, Bristol Bay gillnetters have employed a range of equipment to cool the catch, including slush ice bags and insulated fish holds. RSW systems, however, are regarded by most fishermen as the ultimate fish quality upgrade.

Kurt Ness, operations director for Seattle-based refrigeration manufacturer Integrated Marine Systems (IMS), is seeing brisk demand for the company’s RSW systems. IMS sold 105 units in the year leading up to the 2017 Bristol Bay season, and has sold 95 units since the season ended.

“Everyone’s getting on board,” Ness said, with RSW fever showing no sign of abating.

Kurt Ness, of Integrated Marine Systems, with an 8.5-ton diesel-drive RSW unit on display at last year’s Pacific Marine Expo. Photo courtesy of Wesley Loy of Pacific Fishing.

IMS offers a full line of compact RSW systems driven either hydraulically, electrically, or by diesel engine. A system’s chilling capacity is expressed in tons. Roughly speaking, 1 ton of refrigeration will chill 12,000 pounds of water and fish 1 degree in one hour.

RSW unit prices range from $14,000 to $42,000, Ness said.

Installing an RSW system can, of course, require modification in some Bristol Bay boats. But not to worry.

“There’s not a boat in the fleet that we can’t refrigerate,” Ness said.

RSW Rookie: Jason Gates, a 35-year old resident of the Puget Sound area and a Bristol Bay fisherman, used a 7.5-ton hydraulically powered RSW system for the first time last season.

Gates owns the F/V Ferking, a 32-foot gillnetter he’s been running for about six years. For most of that time, he wasn’t chilling his catch because it was “a pretty big task to make every opener and get ice.”

But using RSW was his intent when he bought his circa 1978 vessel.

“In the short time I’ve been in the industry, I could see it was heading in that direction,” he said, adding that the trend is so strong that there’s talk of dry boats being nonexistent in Bristol Bay within the next two or three years.

Becoming part of the trend wasn’t cheap – Gates laughed when he said he originally set a budget of $50,000 for a chilling system. The final tab came to $120,000, as he was starting from scratch and the project evolved to include extensive fiberglass work.

“It’s pretty much a brand-new boat from the house back,” he said.

The installation involved a haulout and transporting the boat to Bellingham, where the work was done. There were expenses related to retrofitting the vessel with the chilling system, and Gates said plumbing was “one of the first things that caught me off guard – that was a pretty big piece of money.”

Brass fittings alone cost $20 to $40 each, Gates said, adding: “I had no idea how much plumbing would be involved.”

The investment will be recouped, however. Gates estimated his income for last season was $30,000 more than it would have been if he was selling dry fish, and he’s glad he has RSW now.

“I can only pack 8,000 pounds compared to the guys who can pack 20, but it does the job,” he said. “I’m not going to be the big highliner with it but in the end, it definitely makes a huge difference.”

Bristol Bay driftnet boats. “There’s not a boat in the fleet that we can’t refrigerate,” says Kurt Ness, operations director for Integrated Marine Systems. Photo courtesy of Wesley Loy of Pacific Fishing.

RSW Veteran: Price difference was also noted by Robert Heyano, a Dillingham salmon and herring fisherman who is president of United Tribes of Bristol Bay and one of the original incorporators of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.

Heyano said chilled salmon commands an extra 15 cents per pound and the price hike goes up to 30 cents if fish are bled and “floated” or immersed in cold water rather than sprayed.

The trend toward chilled fish was noticeable even in the late 1980s, he said.

“The changed market demand to fresh fish actually was, in my opinion, what triggered the need to improve the quality – and the price reflected it,” he said.

Indeed, the days of simply jamming Bristol Bay salmon into cans are long over.

Heyano said the cost of installing an initial RSW system on an aluminum boat can “easily” be upwards of $60,000.

His new 8.5-ton IMS system was installed last spring. It’s the third IMS system he’s used on his aluminum boat, the F/V Lady Mindy, since it was built in 1990.

Heyano’s first RSW system was hydraulically driven, but he said he prefers diesel power.

“You don’t have to run your main engine to chill your fish and in my opinion, it actually performs better,” he said.

From Happy Customers

The 15-ton diesel-drive RSW that I bought from IMS paid for itself in the first year. The unit chills down fast. I have a 30,000 lbs. fish hold and the system brought it down 6 degrees an hour. I'm really satisfied with the both the unit and the service from IMS. But I've never had much of a problem - the unit pretty much runs itself!”

"Eddie" Pestrikoff, Owner, F/V Melina

After looking at the albacore in the hold, I was amazed at how good the color was - bright blue. The IMS Hatch Mount Blast Freezer is a slick piece of equipment. It works great. The buyer's inspector stated that the blast frozen fish in my hold were the finest fish he had seen all year.”

Tony Jones, F/V Dreamboat Annie

The 18-ton electric RSW from IMS has performed flawlessly for the past three years. There's been no maintenance; I've just changed out the zincs and it has a good screening system. The unit brings temperatures down fast, with more than enough refrigeration for the 55,000 lb. hold. I am very pleased!”

Mark Edens, Owner, F/V Lady Kay

IMS's chiller is such a quality system. I congratulate myself every summer for making the investment. You should be justifiably proud of the system you have designed and the company you have built. It is a pleasure doing business with you!”

Ross Kendall, Set Net Site

When we ordered the IMS 50-ton deck mount unit, we were under the gun ... It was amazing ... we had plenty of time to learn it, run it and test it. Without IMS, we would not have made our charter.”

Cathy Hansen, manager, F/V McKinley

With a premium paid for refrigerated fish, I recouped my investment within the first year. Ever since then, it's just been money in my pocket.”

Joe Hinton, F/V Menusa

'Never bought fish this cold,' stated the Japanese broker when purchasing -40 degree F blast frozen albacore from the F/V Evolution. John equipped his tanked vessel with an IMS Hatch Mount Blast Freezer for easy seasonal conversion to the albacore fishery. When buying John's albacore, the Japanese broker said he was not used to buying fish that cold from this coast. He ordered a special trailer to hold them since they were so cold. Referring to his new blast freezer, John said, 'IMS is great. When you get good equipment, then you have what it takes to meet market demand.'"

Jon McMillan, Owner & Skipper, F/V Evolution

I like the IMS unit because it's so compact and I installed it myself. I do not believe anybody chills water down as fast as I can...”

Jerry Hatton, F/V Primo Lai

I've only got good things to say about the IMS RSW system I use for brine-freezing albacore. It's compact enough to fit on my boat and I remove it at the end of the season. I turn it on and turn it off ... that's all I do. It's easy to operate, does all that IMS said it would and more! There's enough to worry about with catching fish... don't need to worry about freezin' 'em!”

Kris Samuelson, F/V Dos Ninas

Switching to all-RSW allowed us to produce higher quality fish and access new markets not available to fish that haven't been chilled at point of harvest. The single-most important thing the fisherman can do to maintain quality of the fish is to chill at the point of harvest.”

John Lowrance, Owner, Leader Creek Fisheries

IMS equipment has allowed me to deliver top product at a premium price. I have a re-newed outlook on the Louisiana Gulf fishing industry.”

Lance Nacio, Owner, F/V Anna Marie

Joe Wabey chose a 60-ton IMS RSW system. "The system worked like a dream, it's been flawless. Made our summer great. High praise for IMS and their equipment.”

Joe Wabey, Owner, F/V Arctic Eagle

I am lovin' my IMS unit. It's going on eight years now and there's been nothing to do but change belts and impellers. I fish when and where I want and am not tied to a tender. My friends have bought IMS units and they're happy too. It has only taken a few fishing season's to pay for itself and now I'm enjoying the extra money it generates for me.”

Mark Hofstad, F/V Norsemen

The core temperatures on the filets were consistent. From a production standpoint, the FastFreeze did everything I needed. Met our freezing needs and produced a high-quality product.”

Mike Briski, Production Manager, Peter Pan Seafoods Port Moller Plant

IMS refer systems have a proven history. I've used them before - they're 'Plug and Play'. They've all worked good. Nothing I've had to worry about.”

Ray Wadsworth, F/V Liahona

My titanium chiller system from IMS works great! We are able to fish offshore, stay on the grounds longer and deliver outstanding quality lobster. Our self-contained refrigeration system was easy to install - and is a breeze to operate - saving us time and money. I originally bought from another vendor in New England, thinking it might be better to buy local for better service. But I was wrong. When I later bought a system from IMS, the customer service was much better: heads above the service you generally find today anywhere. The product was also better: built as a compact and easy-to-use unit. My first product had not been well-integrated into the boat.”

Robert Colbert, F/V Miss Julie

IMS is local and well-known. Their systems are reliable and maintenance-free - which is a big issue for me. I know that if I do need parts, I'll get fast delivery. Other vendors have problems with that!”

Ron Harper, F/V Pacific Gem

It's easy to install. The system can be retrofitted in an existing boat in about four days. It's really compact and it makes refrigeration simple.”

Paolo Jurkovich, F/V Branko J

The 7.5-ton RSW system has allowed us to maximize value of our fish since 2004 when it was installed. The IMS refrigeration system allows us to earn more and be proud to deliver a high quality product.”

Ray Honea, Crewman, F/V Balrog

After looking at the albacore in the hold, I was amazed at how good the color was - bright blue. The IMS Hatch Mount Blast Freezer is a slick piece of equipment. It works great. The buyer's inspector stated that the blast frozen fish in my hold were the finest fish he had seen all year.”

Dave Fee, F/V Star Polaris