Fishing industry officials faced with a declining workforce are increasingly modernizing and automating equipment to meet harvesting and processing demands with a smaller, but smarter workforce at sea and in shoreside operations.
The combination of comparatively low pay in seafood production and increasing non-labor operating costs is also prompting seafood engineers to focus on implementing automated, including robotic, technologies that are designed to reduce the number of the number of workers and skill requirements. Simultaneously these companies are working with universities to develop training programs that provide employees with the skills to operate and maintain that equipment, said Gleyn E. Bledsoe, of the Center for Advanced Food Technology, a program of Washington State University and the University of Idaho. The new seafood program at the Port of Everett in western Washington proposes to offer relevant academic and training programs, ad work with sector stakeholders and other academic institutions to meet the industry’s workforce and technology challenges.
Bledsoe spoke on Feb. 5 on the first morning of the 69th Pacific Fisheries Technologists Conference at Girdwood, a ski resort area south of Anchorage.
Efforts to modernize and automate equipment used in the seafood industry have increased as the workforce diminishes, as younger workers are opting for less strenuous, safer lifestyles, Bledsoe said. The situation has left the industry dependent on a semi-skilled to unskilled immigrant and guest worker labor force, in an era when work visas are becoming harder to secure, he said.
Universities are working with state and federal veterans’ agencies to recruit and train veterans, a virtually untapped course of technologically savvy employees, to make them technically astute and willing to work in the industry, he said. They are also working with running start programs to recruit young Americans in rural and fishing communities, with Hispanic and Native American populations, he said.
Barbara Rasco, director of the School of Food Science at WSA/UI, told several dozen conference participants about SFS’s four areas of research concentration. These include developing innovative food processing engineering technology, training people to fill current and future seafood harvesting and processing employment needs, more applications of bio-technology to develop new products and applying alternative energy technologies to processing facilities.
The center will support increased graduate research programs, including expansion of the SFS Native American Initiative to increase recruitment of tribal members for training and academic programs, she said.
A presentation by Pacific Fisheries Technologists President Chris Sannito and Brian Himelbloom, both with the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at Kodiak, discussed applying HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) to Alaska Native traditional non-thermal processing of subsistence seal oil. Their report noted that seal oil is classified as a prohibited food because of its implication in numerous confirmed foodborne botulism outbreaks. Since the Maniilaq Association’s long-term care facility in Kotzebue wants to provide its Inupiat elder residents with seal oil as a dietary supplement, a team has been working on a collaborative research and development effort to establish a state Department of Environmental Conservation approved HACCP plan that documents a traditionally based, safe seal oil rendering method to minimize food safety risks, they said.
Other conference topics ranged from concerns with animal welfare in pre-slaughter and slaughter practices, using technology to address HACCP, and seafood fingerprinting in the North Pacific Ocean to the next generation of communication services for fisheries automation and business intelligence.