Making a better “hot dog of the sea”

A pallet of raw surimi at UniSea’s plant in Unalaska. UniSea planned to export about 500 tons of raw surimi to Russia this season. (Photo by Lauren Rosenthal/KUCB)

When people think of Alaska seafood, salmon and halibut come to mind. But the state also produces a lesser-known fish product sought after all around the world: surimi, the base for imitation crab.

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Now the guy who helped establish surimi in America — more than 30 years ago — is on a mission to improve how it’s made.

Tyre Lanier is a food scientist at at North Carolina State University, where he’s been since the 1970s. He has a background in the science of hot dogs.

So, working on seafood initially was a bit of a stretch for him.

“I started off trying to make hot dogs out of fish believe it or not,” Lanier said. “Then I heard about surimi.”

Or as Lanier refers to it, “the hot dog of sea.”

For thousands of years, surimi seafood has been part of Japanese cuisine. Sometimes referred to as kamaboko, it comes in a variety of flavors and shapes.

You probably know it as the fake crab meat in most California rolls. But until just a few decades ago, you could scarcely find surimi seafood in the United States.

Lanier says there were a few reasons why early 1980s America seemed ready to adopt a version of the food. One of them was the king crab fishery in Kodiak was on the verge of collapse, and the food industry was in a race to supply an alternative.

“So they said, ‘OK, here’s this imitation that looks very much and tastes very much like king crab. We can’t get king crab. Let’s bring this stuff from Japan and flood it into that market.’” Lanier said.

There was also huge potential to produce surimi domestically from pollock in the Bering Sea. But first, the state’s fisheries would have to come on board. Lanier visited Alaska to talk about the possibility.

Surimi didn’t get a warm reception.

Tyre Lanier says fish bologna also didn’t work out. So he turned to surimi. (Photo courtesy of North Carolina State University)

“It was basically like ‘what is that stuff?’ and ‘we’ll never do that in the United States’,” Lanier said. “And I knew that it was going to be done here because we were buying all this imitation crab from Japan and it was taking off like a rocket.”

Eventually though, companies came around to Lanier’s way of thinking. And the first surimi processor opened in Kodiak in 1985. Lanier credits the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation for taking an early lead.

And now, decades later, Lanier has another big idea for Alaska. He says surimi plants are losing profits down the drain, literally. Around 40 percent of the soluble protein — from the surimi making process — winds up in the water.

“Whether it’s good or bad for the environment, I’m not qualified to say,” Lanier said. “But whether or not it’s good for food waste? It’s terrible.”

Lanier says that wasted product could account for upwards of $60 million dollars of savings each year.

Then, there’s the impact on the ocean. According to Alaska Sea Grant, the surimi wash water can form an “oxygen-depleted goo” and “smother marine life.”

“You can look at Google Earth and look down on the vicinity of any surimi plant, and some of these are quite large, and on a given day you’ll see a big white cloud in the water,” Lanier said.

So, to reduce waste, he helped develop a technology to recapture the solids.

“Imagine making cheese. You make cheese and you get curds and whey, like Little Miss Muffet” Lanier said. “Well, we’re doing the same thing. We basically have surimi whey.”

And that “surimi whey” can be turned into a lower-grade surimi product. Lanier says the water that filters into the ocean would run crystal clear.

Trident Seafoods has already shown interest.

Lanier thinks, for surimi producers, this technology is a win-win.

“It solves many problems and it creates much more product for them,” Lanier said. “For the same amount of fish, the same amount of money they’ve spent catching those fish, they can now make more product.”

Lanier doesn’t think America’s love affair with imitation crab will go away anytime soon, and now there’s a more efficient way of getting it to market.