Seattle catches some of the best bites from Alaska's fisheries each year at the Symphony of Seafood — an annual competition put on by the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation to promote the state’s value-added seafood products.
This year, there were 18 competition entries in the mix, including a Kenai Peninsula company. AlaSkins makes wild fish skin treats out of Kenai and has a storefront in Soldotna.
“I think we have a superb product. I know that I’m probably biased — well I am," said owner Sara Erickson Monday, the day before flying to Seattle for the competition. “But also I think we really do, because we’re using it for pets and they’re getting the full benefit of something we normally throw away.”
Symphony of Seafood divides competitors into several categories, like retail, food service and people’s choice.
AlaSkins treats were one of five entries in the “beyond the plate” category — "not for human consumption," Erickson said. "But, obviously, you can. We take great care to make sure it’s food grade. If your kid eats it, your child will be fine. In fact, super healthy.”
Event organizers said they were excited about "beyond the plate" because it challenges entrants to use every part of the resource in their products.
Erickson said that’s important to AlaSkins.
“It was a natural fit for us because that’s what this whole thing is about," she said. "Growing up commercial fishing, seeing all that waste of skins, I always knew that one day I wanted to do something with it.”
Erickson buys a lot of her fish skins from local processors. It’s a part of the fish many just throw out, so she’ll pay plants to save them.
“We have halibut and cod here," she said. "We've used all of our salmon already. But we store them here in the freezers. And then, thankfully, in Alaska, the outdoors becomes our freezer as well.”
Erickson and AlaSkins Plant Manager Patrick Hager clean the skins — removing fins, bones and extra meat — before laying them out into rolls and strips. On Monday, Hager was rolling halibut skins. Erickson was doing cod.
Then, into the dehydrators they go, for 15 hours at a time.
The process itself is consistent across species of fish.
“What I’m more dependent on which processing plant is actually skinning the fish, for whatever clients. So, processing plants up here — let’s say Costco — they’re providing all the Costco fish and Costco has asked for skin-off ... of cod," Erickson said. "Halibut is pretty much the same, I can get a large supply of halibut. Salmon, however, isn’t so easy, because people like to have the skin on the sockeye salmon.”
The pandemic has complicated operations at fish processors. She said that’s been a challenge, as well.
"Because they had a hard time, from what I’ve heard from the plant managers, finding employees to work, they didn’t run the skin-off can line, as well," Erickson said. "They did can pink salmon, but not the skin-off.”
This season, they had to buy full salmon and skin them on their own. They’re using the meat for treats, preparing it in a smoker outside the plant.
Another factor is the health of the fishing season. Erickson said her inventory is impacted by how well the commercial fleet does.
They’re all obstacles that come with the territory of using wild fish, Erickson said. She hopes the judges at Symphony of Seafood see the value in the product that she does.
Waterbody, a Wrangell-based skincare company, took first in the beyond the plate category at this year's competition. Prince William Sound Sea Salt also had products in the mix for the same category.
Second and third place winners will be announced at a February event in Juneau.