As Bristol Bay's quality standards evolve, skippers weigh investment in onboard chilling

Jun 20, 2017

As more processors stop canning and require chilled fish, RSW systems give boat captains more control over their catch. While icing fish still chills them faster, ice can be hard to get. Will boats without RSW get left behind?

Travis Howard installs RSW systems.
Credit KDLG

Refrigerated seawater systems are now common on Alaska salmon boats, including in Bristol Bay, as the market calls for higher quality fish for fresh and frozen orders. With the high cost and logistical challenge of making and distributing ice, companies may soon expect Bristol Bay fisherman to have RSW onboard. There is still quite a bit of trepidation about making the costly and time-consuming upgrade.

Refrigerated seawater systems circulate water from the ocean through a system of pipes into a chiller. The water is pumped into a vessel’s fish hold to chill the catch at just above freezing. This helps to preserve the fish without needing ice. But some of the fishermen in Bristol Bay have older boats not equipped with the chilling systems, and it is a costly upgrade.

“It is a very expensive project and very time consuming. So you either have to ship it down south and have somebody else do it, or get it in your back yard and work on it all winter. So that’s one thing and cost is another. It’s not cheap,” said Dan Korthuis, captain of the Utnapishnum. He will not be fishing with an RSW system this season, and doesn’t expect to have one installed for at least a couple years.

“I’ll probably buy the unit next year, but I probably will not install it until a year after. I have to do some welding on the deck there, and get another hold set up so that I can put it in will have enough room for it and still chill enough fish and still make it easy to fish, so it’s a lot of work,” said Korthuis.

Doug Cannon and Mendi Jenkins are co-owners at Marine Refrigeration Solutions, one of several companies who specialize in adding RSW to Bristol Bay boats. They set up shop each summer at the PAF yard in Dillingham.

“People have a desire to do it the traditional way. They don’t want change," Cannon said of the common apprehension of fisherman to make the upgrade. "They’re afraid of change, and if there’s fear of a new piece of equipment you don’t want it in your boat, because you don’t know how it works, you don’t know what it does, it’s a piece of magic.”

All boats and fishing operations are different, so the installation schematic and total cost of an RSW unit are extremely variable. Marine Refrigeration Solutions offers consultation services and educational classes for fisherman who are looking to make the upgrade. Some fisherman who take the project on themselves end up paying more in the long run, because of improper plumbing.

“A good 80 percent of problems with RSW is because of poor insulation, poor installation, and having your water plumbing not designed properly,” said Jenkins.

Dan Korthuis on the Utnapishnum is facing this very challenge, as he plans to install a unit himself.

“Everybody has done it a different way, and you find out which way is the best for insulating the holds, and returns, and all that stuff, and which unit they like the best, and what the cost was. So, yeah, get all the information you can so you do it right the first time,” said Korthuis.

Several industry organizations in the Bristol Bay fishery are pushing for a higher quality of fish sold to processors, as market indications show a demand for fillets, not canned salmon. The task of chilling the fish, and handling them properly, falls on the fisherman. To chill fish they can either install the RSW or use ice, which is not always accessible, and processors are not showing an interest in bolstering efforts to make ice more available to the fleet.

The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association says they tried increasing processors ice distribution through grants, to little avail.

“We offered up to $150,000—these one-third grants, per se, or subsidizations—so people could either buy new ice-making equipment, or refurbish older equipment, and also to purchase insulated ice totes so they could distribute ice further. Honestly, there wasn’t a ton of interest,” said BBRSDA executive director Becky Martello.

The Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, the CDQ for Bristol Bay, operates two ice barges in Bristol Bay, the Bristol Maid and the Bristol Lady, without which many fishermen may not have access to any ice during their season.

There are incentives for fisherman to install RSW. BBEDC is helping pay for units, installs, and trainings, the bonuses for chilled fish are increasing relative to the base price for salmon, plus there are now tax breaks offered locally and help with shipping boats south to get work done over the winter.

“The better fish we pull out of here the more money we get, and I’d like to be able to say, you know, that’s a Bristol Bay fish down there I caught that thing,” said Korthuis.

A Northern Economics study done for the BBRSDA suggested that 82 percent of the chilled drift catch last year was chilled with RSW. Will boats that ice their catch get left behind in the years ahead and be forced to make the costly leap? No one seems to know for sure, but current trends certainly suggest that could be a possibility.

Contact KDLG fisheries reporter Nick Ciolino at or 907-842-5281