Excursion Inlet cannery ramps up frozen fish production

Ocean Beauty’s fish processing plant at Excursion Inlet. (Henry Leasia /KHNS)

Excursion Inlet’s fish-processing plant is gearing up for another season. Recently, seafood processor and distributor Ocean Beauty has been reducing its canning operations while ramping up frozen fish production. This new direction has brought in more business for the Excursion Inlet plant.

When Ocean Beauty’s Southeast Operations Manager Mike Forbush started coming up to Excursion Inlet about 30 years ago, the cannery mostly employed college students. That is not the case anymore.

“I would be very young on this crew, and I’m almost 50,” Forbush said. “I would say the average age is almost 50, 55.”

The vast majority of the staff are from the lower 48. Employees have been spreading the word about the plant to family and friends from New Mexico, Yakima and Stockton.

Forbush said that there is about a 95 percent return rate for maintenance workers, which has all but eliminated the need for outreach.

“I think the last time we recruited in Juneau, we picked up one person,” Forbush said.

By now, multiple generations have worked at this plant. Some are part of families that have been coming since the 1940s.

There is a lot of work to be done on the canning machines. The plant relies on models from the 1960s, and there are no companies that produce salmon canning machines anymore.

“Because there’s just not enough canneries. You know, there’s a lot of soup canneries and things like that, but not a lot of salmon canneries.” Forbush said.

Maintaining this equipment requires skilled machinists who can make parts on the spot. But for all of the work that goes into this assembly line, a small fraction of the product will end up in a can.

An Excursion Inlet salmon canning machine built in 1969. (Henry Leasia / KHNS)

For the last two years, Ocean Beauty has been placing more emphasis on freezing fish in Southeast Alaska. Forbush estimates that 85 percent of the fish processed by the plant this year will be frozen. There are a few reasons for this.

The majority of Ocean Beauty’s canning in Southeast Alaska revolves around pink salmon. Other species of salmon are not as cost-effective for canning. But the pink run is looking weaker this year, especially for the northern part of the region.

In addition, the market for frozen fish is much more lucrative right now. Forbush said a lot of Excursion Inlet’s frozen fish is being sold to other processors in countries like Germany and France. Some of the fish will be sent to Ocean Beauty’s plants in Washington.

“We have quite a big smoking operation down South. We do all our cold smoke in Monroe and our hot smoke in Renton,” Forbush said.

Ocean Beauty’s Petersberg plant did not operate last year due to a lack of freezer facilities. This resulted in Excursion Inlet processing around 26 million pounds of fish in 2017. That’s three times as much fish as it processed the previous year, which is good news for the Haines Borough. The plant brought in over $300,000 in raw fish tax revenue.

Recently, the Borough helped pay to replace a failing bridge that supports a waterline for the Ocean Beauty Plant. At a recent dedication for the new bridge, Forbush said that the repair ensured that the plant would keep running.

“There would be no way the cannery would operate. We have no source down below with enough gravity feed to get to the cannery. It would have been disastrous for us,” Forbush said.

The Petersberg cannery will remain closed again this year, and the Excursion Inlet plant is preparing for more frozen fish production. In April, they bought a new compressor for the refrigeration system. The last time they had updated the refrigerator was in 1979. Now the plant will be able to freeze fish 24 hours a day over a three week period.

Excursion Inlet’s plant superintendent Tom Marshall says they aim to process around 20 million pounds of fish this season.