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These Planes Carry Everything From Cold Fish to Warm Bears

September 28, 1987

YAKUTAT, Alaska (AP) _ The passengers aboard Capt. Kevin Earp’s flight tonight are cold and cramped. Many of them are crabby. All of them smell.

Just a few hours ago, they were floating happily somewhere in the Gulf of Alaska. Such is the life of 23,000 pounds of Dungeness crab and sockeye salmon.

In less than 24 hours, they will be ensconced in restaurants in Seattle or San Francisco or Los Angeles, or en route to Chicago or Boston or New York. It will be all over, but for the melted butter.

″This is right out of the ocean, right into the packing plants, right into our airplanes, right down to Seattle and right into the market,″ Earp said as he manuvered the Boeing 737 - known in these parts as a salmon-30-salmon in honor of its tasty summer cargo - down the runway and up into a brilliant Alaskan night.

His aircraft is ideal for the task. By day, the Alaska Airlines 737-200s fly passengers and cargo out of Anchorage to Nome, Kotzebue, Prudhoe Bay, Cordova, Yakutat and Juneau, towns with no connecting roads and too little passenger business to rate wide-body service. By night, their 111 seats are pushed out and replaced by up to six Fiberglas containers known as igloos, filled with fish or freight.

American demand for fresh fish - salmon, halibut and crab that go from sea to supper in a matter of hours - has exploded, creating a market virtually unknown just a decade ago, say the people committed to meeting the need.

″The seafood consumer has begun to demand a high-quality product,″ said Skip Ryman, Alaska Airlines station manager in this fishing town of about 700 inhabitants. ″They don’t want a product that’s a day older than they were promised they’d get it.″

By early September, processors had shipped 3 million pounds of seafood out of Yakutat alone, more than one-third of that fresh. That compares with the 375,000 pounds shipped during last year’s five-month summer season.

″The whole nature of the market has changed dramatically,″ said Jeff Otness, fresh seafood coordinator in Yakutat for Sitka Sound Seafoods, a medium-sized processor. ″When I started selling fish (seven years ago), I had to convince someone to try fresh. They’d say, ‘Why would I want fresh when I’ve got this nice frozen stuff over here?’ No one would even try it.″

Now cargo carriers fly 30,000 pounds of fresh seafood out of Yakutat every day, Otness said. ″What happened is, it became trendy,″ he said. ″High- class restaurants began featuring fresh fish, so the wholesalers had to, and the retailers had to. If you want to compete nowadays, you pretty much have to have a fresh program.″

Last year, Alaska produced 3.6 billion pounds of seafood worth $890 million, including 590 million pounds of salmon, 150 million pounds of shellfish and 57.4 million pounds of halibut.

The vast majority was frozen; it would be impractical to try to ship such a volume of seafood all fresh, processors say.

With that in mind, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, a 7-year-old public-private group responsible for promoting Alaska seafood, instituted a program last year to convince consumers that frozen was as good as fresh.

″We just tackled it head-on and said, it’s frozen and it’s excellent,″ said ASMI Executive Director Merry Tuten. ″I think your average consumer thinks fresh is the best. But there’s a lot of definitions of what fresh is. Unless you’re here and get it off the boat, how do you know how fresh it is? ″

Shoppers and diners might not always know fresh when they see it, but many people believe their tastebuds never lie.

Demand has created the market; modern transportation has met the demand. Air shipments of seafood began out of Yakutat in the early 1970s. Before that, steamships came in twice a year and hauled out the fish - frozen, of course.

″When I was a boy, we used to get jobs in the cannery, and we would go in with axes and picks and break the frozen fish loose from huge frozen clusters in the freezer and throw them in the bins and load them onto barges,″ Ryman said.

″Now if you went down to the plant, you’d see the fish nicely divided into immaculate stainless steel tubs, iced, labeled as to quality and type of fish and handled carefully, not to be bruised.″

As Ryman speaks, his cargo crew slides igloos, packed with seafood, into the belly of the jet. Igloos filled with freight from Anchorage - toilet paper, milk, groceries, mail, clothes, life’s necessities for inaccessible towns and villages - were unloaded a stop earlier, in Cordova.

When the 737 touches down in the pre-dawn darkness of Seattle, the Yakutat shipment is unloaded and doled out to distributors, wholesale and retail, from San Diego, Oakland, Seattle and Minneapolis. The seafood-stuffe d igloos are replaced with more freight and mail for the three-hour flight back to Anchorage.

A few other carriers, including MarkAir and Northern Air Cargo, fly fish within the state, dropping loads in Anchorage where commercial airlines such as Delta, United and American can take them south. Alaska Airlines is the only commercial carrier that flies to the state’s many tiny towns and hauls seafood and other products directly from processors at those points to the lower 48.

Each igloo can hold more than 7,000 pounds of freight or seafood, but occasionally, the cargo won’t fit in a conventional container.

″That’s one thing about Alaska,″ said Todd Wallace, Alaska Airlines cargo manager in Anchorage. ″Guys will ship anything from the kitchen sink to llamas, reindeer, horses, goats, grizzlies. We shipped a blue bear from Juneau, where he was eating all the garbage, to the zoo in Anchorage.″

Earp himself has hauled caribou, muskox and dog teams. The 737, with its $18 million price tag, has also served as what must be the world’s most expensive garbage barge.

″We had to ship garbage out of Deadhorse-Prudhoe,″ co-pilot Bob Coviello said. ″They can’t dispose of it up there (above the Arctic Circle), so we took it to Anchorage.″

Anchorage is the hub in the Alaskan seafood-freight wheel. At the height of the season, it’s not unusual for more than 120,000 pounds of seafood to move in and out of the state’s largest city.

The system that rushes seafood from water to waiter relies on the telephone and quick reflexes. On this day, the Alaska Airlines cargo terminal roars with the noise of forklifts, trucks and shouting workers. Less than two hours ago, a call came from Cordova for an unscheduled stop, so cargo handlers are busy building four igloos of local freight for them.

″They’ve got fish, we’ve got freight, so everybody scrambles,″ Wallace said. ″The key is to move it in the front door and move it out the back door.″

End Adv Sept. 28

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