Gamble Reaches Out to Kodiak Community for FSMI Guidance
President visits community as part of the Fisheries Seafood Maritime Initiative
Story and photos by Monique Musick
Kodiak Community Outreach
Clouds completely enveloped the twin prop plane operated by Era Alaska as President Gamble flew to Kodiak for a community outreach tour as part of the Fisheries, Seafood, Maritime Initiative (FSMI). Weather delayed arrival by a couple of hours, and the wind and rain was still driving sideways as passengers walked across the tarmac to the small airport terminal. Regent Pat Jacobson was there to greet Gamble and welcome him to her hometown. Quentin Fong, Seafood Marketing Specialist at UAF’s Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center, also the guide and tour coordinator for the Kodiak visit, was waiting with agendas, information and a van to transport the group around the island.
This was Gamble’s second trip to meet one-on-one with industry leaders and community members whose livelihood depends on Alaska’s fishing, seafood or maritime industries as part of FSMI. The goal of the initiative is to collect direct feedback on specific training and workforce development needs in these vital job sectors so that the university can align their program offerings to support and enhance these industries. Kodiak is an ideal place to find people involved in all aspects of these industries.
Kodiak is Alaska’s second largest commercial fishing port. Fishermen deliver about 300 million pounds of seafood to Kodiak processing plants each year including salmon, pollock, cod, crab and other sea creatures. More than one third of the jobs in Kodiak are directly involved in the fishing industry in either the harvesting or processing sectors. In addition the U.S. Coast Guard has its largest facility in Kodiak employing approximately 1,400 military and civilian personnel and housing over 1,700 military dependents. Shipping, ship repair and other related maritime industries make up a smaller but still significant part of the workforce.
The island itself is quite large; the second largest in the United States behind the big island of Hawaii. The City of Kodiak is at the northeast tip of the island and lies about 200 miles south of Anchorage. There are about 100 miles of roads on the island, most of which offer incredible views of the mountains, shores and surrounding islands.
The first stop of the tour was to the library at the Kodiak Community College where campus director Barbara Bolsen and a small gathering of undergraduate and graduate students, professors and researchers, gathered to have lunch with Gamble and Jacobson. Each person shared stories of their educational experiences at UAA Kodiak and UAF’s marine science center and the impact of the university on their lives and careers.
Alaska Pacific Seafood
Next the group went to Alaska Pacific Seafood for a tour of their seafood processing operation. After checking in and donning the required headnets and identification tags, the guide brought the group through the processing facility. A line of workers were hand-processing giant red sea cucumbers. Each worker had a station for turning the tube-bodied echinoderms inside out to separate the muscle bundle, or meat, from the red-brown leathery skin. The meat is packaged and sold primarily in Asian markets. The skin is highly valued both as a dried food in oriental cooking and as a source of collagen for the cosmetic industry.
A man and his daughter who had recently brought in sea cumbers for processing were curious about the group—in particular that I was taking photographs. In the highly competitive seafood industry it is fairly rare to allow photographs inside processing facilities. After meeting President Gamble and Regent Jacobson he began to talk about his career as a commercial diver. The man went into great detail on how he and his daughter harvest sea cucumbers from the ocean floor. He dives to the seabed where the sea cumbers tend to congregate in long rows. He swims with a nine-foot bag and hand collects the creatures while breathing through a tube monitored by his daughter on deck. When he approaches the end of his breathing tube she pulls on his rope to warn him and he swims back the other way continuing to gather the soft-bodied organisms. He described the meat as being a cross between a scallop and a razor clam, and recommended preparing it like fried chicken. He was also quick to point out that the skin was most valuable, selling for as much as $28 per pound as opposed to the $3 to $4 a pound for wholesale price of the meat.
Workers in the rest of the facility were busy processing Lingcod. The mild tasting white meat is an important part of Alaska’s commercial fishing industry. Carts of the pale fillets were being pushed across the facility on their way to be flash frozen and packaged for distribution. The guide showed the group the holding tanks where the fish are pumped in from the fishing vessels. He pointed out where any by-catch, or unintended catches of other species, is hand sorted out and documented. By the time the tour had arrived it was late afternoon, and the last of eight giant holding tanks was being processed. The last of the day’s fish were being carried by conveyer from the holding tanks to the processing lines and prepared for market.
Kodiak Port and Harbor
The next stop was to the office of Harbor Master Marty Owen near St. Paul Harbor in downtown Kodiak. Owen is in charge of the city’s two harbors, the shipyard, ferry docks and shipping/freight piers. User fees pay for the operation of all port facilities. On a large aerial photograph Owen pointed out the moorage available, gave an overview of the growth of the city’s ports and introduced some new and soon to come projects.
Almost all goods coming into Kodiak, and most of the processed seafood going out, get loaded on or off at the Pier III cargo terminal. Owens said that over 140,000 tons of freight comes and goes through that pier. A 30-ton Paceco container lift loads and unloads cargo containers year round.
The Kodiak shipyard, which also falls under Owen’s direction, is unique in Alaska because it is an open shipyard. This means that vessel operators can choose who they want to make repairs—even their own crew. The shipyard features a 660-ton Marine Travelift for lifting and transporting vessels up to 180 feet in length. There is room for up to six large vessels at a time in the shipyard. City workers do the lifting and blocking, and a whole variety of local businesses are ready to provide services from dive inspections to fabrication and welding. The ship lift and wash down pad are designed to operate year round. Local commercial fishing vessels make up 75 percent of their business, but the cost-savings potential from using your own crew to make repairs instead of hiring-out brings in Alaskan vessels home-ported elsewhere.
When the group drove to visit the shipyard and tour the facilities, they met one of those “elsewhere” vessels. The Time Bandit—a boat made popular by the Discovery Channel’s series Deadliest Catch—was nearing the end of a several month project which included hull repairs and the replacement of both engines. Although the Time Bandit is usually moored in Homer, they dry docked in Kodiak in order to make their own repairs. As everyone stood underneath the hull to get out of the rain, Gamble and Captain Andy Hillstrand discussed the skills needed at sea (or making repairs on land) that are distinct to the marine environment. Hillstrand pointed out that being good at specific skills—be it welding, refrigeration, engine repair or electronics—means little if a person can’t handle life on a boat or is too seasick to work. Experience on the water can be as important as shop skills when a vessel is out at sea.
UAF Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center
That evening professor Fong gave a quick tour of the UAF Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center. It is part of the network of facilities used by the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences (SFOS). The facility is unique for a few reasons. For one it was created by the Alaska Legislature in 1981 for the purpose of providing research support for Alaska’s seafood industry. It fell under the SFOS in 1987. The mission of the center is to increase the value of Alaska’s fishing industry and marine resources through research, technological development, education and service. Staff at the center work directly with industry to develop solutions to industry problems and help businesses test, and learn to market, their products. They focus on five areas: seafood harvesting technology, seafood processing technology, seafood quality and safety, contaminants and collaborative ecosystems research.
The 20,000 sq. ft. facility is state-of-the-art. In addition to the central office complex with faculty offices and video-conference rooms, the facility features a research kitchen with a sensory testing lab; engineering, biochemistry, chemistry and microbiology labs; and a seafood research lab “pilot plant” equipped with the same technology used by seafood processing facilities including plenty of freezer capacity. They assist the seafood industry and community through research and teaching. For example, the center will be offering a workshop on smoking salmon and salting fish in November. More information on the center can be found here. http://www.sfos.uaf.edu/ksmsc/
Dinner With Community and Industry Leaders
The highlight of the trip came the following evening in the form of a community dinner and meet-and-greet. There were 36 attendees, including Gamble and Jacobson, ranging from the director of the Kodiak Campus, Kodiak city mayor and economic development coordinator for the Chamber of Commerce, to dozens of fisherman, seafood processors, tribal leaders, researchers and students. Many wore more than one hat, and just about all had been or still are part of Kodiak’s fishing or seafood industries.
Following Gamble’s introduction of the initiative and words from Kodiak Campus Director Barbara Bolson, each guest took a few minutes to share their opinion on the needs of their industry, reflections on the importance of the university and suggestions for future partnerships or programs. As the microphone was passed around the room, person after person thanked the university for the important contributions to their community and openly shared ways that the university could improve. While many themes had been brought up before during FSMI meetings and listening sessions associated with the Strategic Direction Initiative, many new insights were gained at the meeting.
One example is that there are so many non-native English speakers working in seafood processing that English as a second language, or ESL, classes are an important offering at the campus. The families of many of the workers depend on that training as well. From the processors position, many of their most qualified successors, in terms of understanding the industry, are challenged by the language barrier. It was suggested that UA offer classes in business aimed at the ESL learners.
Several times individuals expressed that business classes in general are needed throughout FSM industries. Each boat owner and fisherman needs to understand basic business principals. Seafood manufacturers need to understand marketing and management skills. The business of fishing and seafood is unique and courses geared toward that are really needed.
Another very common theme was the need for marine-based technical skills from refrigeration repair and welding to electrical and engine repairs. In order to do so there needs to be an investment in facilities. The Kodiak Campus uses the welding shop at the local high school for welding instruction and has no room to expand despite increased demand.
Other guests talked about the importance of research into the looming threats of ocean acidification and climate change and appreciation for the research already being conducted by the university. Some spoke about the importance of preserving and respecting native culture and passing on the connection of tribal people to the natural resources of the land and sea. The challenges facing K-12 education and student success was another strong theme. It was a powerful and moving experience to hear the passion and interest of each individual as they told their personal stories and added their voices to the fisheries, seafood and maritime initiative.
The next morning more industry leaders, students, faculty and staff met with Gamble and Jacobson at a community breakfast in the library on the Kodiak Campus. It was an informal gathering with lots of side conversations between university leadership and community members. People were eager to share their insights, experience and knowledge.
Kodiak Campus & Thelma C Restoration
Bolson took a group on a tour of the current technology center and discussed the plans for the upcoming renovation and expansion. It is a story not uncommon to community campuses; there is a demand for more workforce development training but a limit to the facilities and resources to deliver the instruction. Plans have been approved for a major remodel and expansion that will vastly improve the campus’ ability to provide the training desired in a safe and modern environment.
The final stop was a tour of a restoration project rebuilding the vessel Thelma C. The project is a joint effort between the Kodiak College, Construction Academy and the Kodiak Maritime Museum. Shipwright Brian Johnson detailed the restoration effort and showed Gamble and Jacobson the historic wooden salmon fishing boat. When finished the seiner will become a permanent interpretive exhibit in the Kodiak Small Boat Harbor.
Visions for the Future
It was raining again, but Gamble was excited as he spoke with Bolsen, Fong and others from the Kodiak campus about a new idea to develop a curriculum for marine technical education. Courses would be partially taught on a boat at sea. It would be a floating simulator that could train students to respond to all manner of potential at-sea complications with the added benefit of being in an actual boat environment. It was just one result of the days of discussing needs and listening to community members.
The time had come to fly back home, but as Gamble left Kodiak he was better informed and more engaged in the possibilities inherent in the Fisheries Seafood Maritime Initiative and what that means to Kodiak and all of Alaska.