The Fisheries, Seafood and Maritime Initiative

Photo of Ketchikan.

Visit to Ketchikan Highlights Fisheries, Seafood and Maritime Workforce Needs

Ketchikan is a major visitor destination and home to some of Alaska's largest salmon, seafood and maritime industries.

Story and photos by Monique Musick

Ketchikan, Alaska’s oldest, and currently fourth-largest city, is home to all of the industries targeted by the University of Alaska’s Fisheries, Seafood and Maritime Initiative (FSMI.) One of the major goals of the initiative is to align and coordinate classes taught throughout the university system into targeted workforce development programs for specific occupations within seafood, maritime and fishing industries. To do this, the university is seeking out input from business and governmental partners on exactly what kind of training is needed for their industries.

On August 20 and 21, UA President Patrick Gamble and UAS Chancellor John Pugh joined UAS Ketchikan Interim Campus Director Priscilla Schulte, Assistant Director for Workforce Development Wendy Miles, UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences Marine Advisory Program Associate Professor Gary Freitag and UAA Professor of Economics Gunnar Knapp for a tour aimed to highlight the educational needs of each industry and to discuss with industry leaders how the university can better meet their workforce training needs.

Trident Seafoods

The first stop on the tour was to Trident Seafoods. On the office wall of plant manager John Scoblic hangs a massive map marking the sources of the salmon being brought to the processing plant by fleets of fishermen as well as the locations of Trident’s other processing centers. They track the sources of the fish coming into their plants and note the dramatic annual variations in the salmon returns and catches. This year, Scoblic pointed out, the fish are coming from father south than last year.

When asked how the university could help prepare the workforce for the seafood industry, Scoblic suggested that business training specific to the fishing industry is something the university should focus on. Every vessel, be it a family fishing boat or a large seiner, is a business with all the planning, budgeting, management and accounting needs of any industry—but that is not always recognized by the people doing the fishing. Many operations lack a proper business plan or the basic understanding of business principals needed for money management and success—especially in such a dynamic industry.

On the seafood processing side, Scoblic said that management training is really lacking. He has taken a variety of business classes through the university himself and sees great value in the university offering business courses focused on the seafood industry with its added complexities and uncertainties.

After some lively discussion of other ways that the university could better train individuals on the business of seafood, Scoblic had the group suit-up in hair nets and gave a tour of the salmon processing plant. Canned salmon is a key industry for Alaska and one of the few large scale exports. Trident produces up to 500,000 cases of canned salmon per year out of the Ketchikan facility alone. In addition they process frozen headed and gutted salmon, salmon roe for caviar and a variety of other products such as fish oil for the health industry. The state of the art factory employs 200 to 420 employees throughout the year. In the winter they scale back but use part of the plant to process sea cumbers, geoduck and other winter-season seafood.

Touring the Trident Seafood processing plant
Touring the Trident Seafood processing plant

Industry Dinner

Following the Trident tour, the group enjoyed a dinner with a variety of industry representatives including the U.S. Coast Guard Base Commander Wade Gesele; Owners of Ward Cove Industrial, Dave and Andrew Spokely; Allen Marine Ketchikan Operations Manager Amanda Painter; Ketchikan Visitor Bureau President Patti Mackey; and Phil Doherty of the Southeast Alaska Dive Fisheries Association. Gamble introduced the purpose behind the FSM Initiative and invited the guests to share ways in which they see the university partnering with their industry. Throughout the meal discussions emanated from every corner of the table covering everything from the startling impact of sea otters on invertebrate (sea cucumber, urchin, mollusks etc.) populations to the need for off-season training for a vast variety of marine industries. 

Ketchikan Indian Community Southern Southeast Alaska Technical Education Center

A recording studio at SSEATC is used in association with native language courses and preservation.

Tuesday morning kicked off early with a visit to the new facility belonging to the Ketchikan Indian Community (KIC) Southern Southeast Alaska Technical Education Center (SSEATEC). The facility functions as a home for tribal services as well as a learning and training center. SSEATEC focuses on workforce development training for high school age students. The center typically targets youth who are struggling in the traditional high school environment and teaches students job skills and helps direct them on a course toward higher education. In addition the center offers language classes and training to the greater community. The KIC has a positive relationship with the University of Alaska Southeast and sees additional opportunities to partner and grow.

OceansAlaska Marine Science Center

The next tour destination was farther up the coast to the floating research facility that is home to OceansAlaska Marine Science Center. This private non-profit mariculture research and training facility is currently working on an oyster seed production and research project. Colorful tubes contain algae they are growing for feeding the oysters. 

The state-of-the-art facility opened in July 2012. The goal is to provide the research and development relevant to building expanding and growing the state’s shellfish mariculture industry. The goal of the project is to demonstrate shellfish mariculture techniques including oysters, geoduck, sea cucumber, pinto abalone, rock scallops, and micro and macro algae.  

Algae grows in tubes in the OceansAlaska Marine Science Center.
The facility is built on a floating barge.
Researcher Barbara Morgan cultivates varieties of pure forms of algae for feeding to oysters.
Young oysters

Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association (SSRAA) salmon hatchery

On the way back into Ketchikan, the group toured the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association (SSRAA) salmon hatchery at Whitman Lake. The facility acts as a central incubation facility where salmon eggs are collected and incubated and millions of salmon fry are raised. While a number of fish are released from the facility, ensuring that each year a supply of fish—and the eggs they contain—return each year, the majority of the salmon raised at the facility are released in remote locations. The hatchery works to supplement the quantity of wild salmon and help stabilize the fishing industry. A three percent tax is paid by commercial fishermen to help fund the hatcheries, who in turn benefit from the strong runs of salmon produced in part by the hatchery system. The rest of the funding for SSRAA comes from an annual salmon harvest. SSRAA facilities produce all breeds of salmon except pink.

The SSRAA salmon hatchery at Whitman Lake

Hatchery manager Jay Creasy explained the process, starting with harvesting the eggs from the returning salmon, up through delivering the fry to remote release locations, and the workers needed for each phase. He has had good success with fish tech graduates from UA but noted that what he needs most in employees is a strong work ethic, intelligence and some common sense.

One of the key processes during incubation is “marking” the salmon. By carefully timing cycles of cold and warm water, the salmon are marked on a cellular level with a distinct pattern, much like the rings on a tree. The marking patterns for fish from each facility can be seen years later when fish return and are caught and are used to determine their place of origin. The timing of the cycles is crucial to creating the right mark. By sampling the adults when they are brought to port by fishing vessels, it’s possible to track the success of the hatchery.

Great care must be taken not to damage the freshly harvested eggs, which are quite fragile until they harden. The eggs from each salmon are kept separate. The livers of the parent fish are tested, and if any disease is noted the entire tray of salmon eggs is easily located and disposed of. Some fertilized eggs are sent to other facilities but several million are reared onsite in a series of tanks. In recent years the hatchery has an ocean survival rate of about eight percent, significantly higher than the average three to four percent rate considered standard by the industry.  

Jay Creasy explains the harvesting and incubation of salmon roe.
Millions of salmon fry are raised in the hatchery.

Rotary International

At noon, Gamble spoke with a local Rotary chapter about the Strategic Direction Initiative and the Fisheries, Seafood and Maritime Initiative. In both cases, the University is seeking to improve the experience of students in the university system and better prepare the workforce needed for Alaska’s industries. Gamble explained that while over 140 courses related to the three industries are offered in the university system, there is not a cohesive education program for preparing students for the industries. There is also a great need for more research, an area where the university excels. The purpose of this trip to Ketchikan, Gamble told the audience, was to talk directly to industry partners to better understand their workforce training needs.

President Gamble gave the keynote speech at the Ketchikan Rotary lunch.

Alaska Marine Highway

Following lunch, the tour went in a different direction, both physically across the island and into a different industry: the Alaska Marine Highway. The group met with the Deputy Commissioner of Transportation for Marine Operations Captain Michael Neussl, Operations Manager Tony Karvalas and an assembly of other staff to discuss the Marine Highway System and its training needs. Maritime laws require a good deal of training prior to any form of employment. While a good number of U.S. Coast Guard certified classes are offered through the UAS campus in Ketchikan, the university does not have the facilities—such as a boat—to provide all the necessary training. The seasonal nature of the industry doesn’t match traditional school times either. There is a lot of potential for expanded partnerships with the maritime industry, but it will take some work on the part of the university and investment in necessary equipment.

SSRAA Otolith Lab

After leaving the Marine Highway operations center, the group stopped in to see another side of the SSRAA operation: the otolith lab. Here researchers, led by Sue Doherty, conduct the analysis of “marks” on salmon otolith samples. Through analysis SSRAA researchers determine if the salmon was wild or from a hatchery, and in the case of the latter, which hatchery the salmon were bred in. 

A salmon otolith sample reveals its distinct hatchery markings.

Alaska Ship and Dry Dock

The final stop for the day was to the new facilities of Alaska Ship and Dry Dock. The massive new shipbuilding facility is not entirely finished but is well on its way to being one of the most advanced in the world. ASDD Development Director Doug Ward met with the group and explained the unique labor system at the company. The workers do a lot of cross-training. The company’s goal is to have all employees to consider themselves “ship builders” as opposed to specific categories like welders or electricians. The business was recently purchased by Vigor Industrial. Vigor has a great model of cooperation with universities in Washington and Oregon and is eager to work with the University of Alaska to develop workforce training programs.

With great interest the group toured the massive ship yard starting with the dry dock—where two ships were being repaired—and concluding in the new ship building facility where a new 170 foot trawler is currently under construction.

Doug Ward explains the training and skills used at the Alaska Ship and Dry Dock.
The FSMI group tours the dry dock where ships are being repaired.

Alaska Joint Fisheries Seafood Maritime Workforce Forum

The trip to Ketchikan was just one way that the university is reaching out to industry leaders. In March, 52 representatives met at the Alaska Joint Fisheries Seafood Maritime Workforce Forum. Attendees were asked to discuss their successes and challenges in meeting workforce needs, current and future workforce needs and priorities and education and training needs for their industry. The responses were compiled and formed the baseline for further research into FSM industry needs and the gap between those needs and the universities offerings. A second forum will be held in October to review the findings of the surveys, the gap analysis and industry priorities and further work towards adapting the university to meet the priority needs of the FSM industries.

More information can be found on the FSMI website. www.alaska.edu/fsmi.

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