By Bob Tkacz
The US seafood industry needs to create an “aquatic river of knowledge” to make sure it has the scientific and technological expertise it needs to remain competitive in the most complex animal protein market in the world, a University of Alaska faculty member warned.
“Currently there are more than 800 species of aquatic foods that are internationally traded… The international trade in fish is more than twice that of the combination of both meats and poultry,” said Dr. Marat Balaban, director of the university’s Fishery Industrial Technology Center, in Kodiak.
Speaking to regional US processors attending the “Second International Congress on Seafood Technology,” Balaban asked for their support for a formal, industry-integrated academic curriculum, which, unlike other countries with major seafood markets, does not exist anywhere in US academia.
“No seafood science and technology department in the US. No formal curriculum,” Balaban said at the May 10-12 event in Anchorage.
Meat science departments offer advanced degrees at Kansas and Texas colleges. The University of Wisconsin has a dairy science department and California universities in wine country offer oenology degrees. Balaban said a seafood curriculum should be more comprehensive. “We are talking about seafood from fish to dish. It needs to be integrated,” he declared.
Undergraduates in the fisheries curriculum at Ege University, in Balaban’s homeland of Turkey, spend their first three years learning the basics of fisheries management, value-added processing and seafood chemistry. In their fourth year they choose from three options including marine and freshwater fisheries science and technology, seafood processing technology or aquaculture.
He also noted a United Nations fisheries technology program established in Iceland that covers fisheries policy and planning, resource stock assessment, seafood processing, handling and quality control; fishing technology, sustainable aquaculture and fisheries business management.
“It’s a global perspective,” Balaban said.
The US seafood industry should build an “aquatic river of knowledge,” based most logically in Alaska, where harvest technology and maritime disciplines could included with the other courses. “I suspect if something like this is going to happen it is going to happen in Alaska,” Balaban said.
His river begins with the information generated by oceanographic research with success downstream contributions from “ecosystem people” on physical, chemical and biological topics, “fisheries people” on population dynamics, physiology, and genetics.
Sustainable utilization would follow, including seafood science, processing, safety and marketing.
Referring to participants before or after the point of processing Balaban said even now the “live fish people and the dead fish people” don’t talk to each other enough to better integrate their respective questions and answers.
A 2009 survey of the educational background of the seafood industry here, conducted by the FITC, showed that only 13 percent of current personnel earned graduate degrees with 23% holding bachelor’s degrees, 17% with two-year and 13% with one year certifications.
Balaban counseled against copying other schools that “focus on generating as many masters and doctoral degrees as they can. The industry doesn’t require a whole lot of them.”
He also emphasized that advance institutions could be located in remote locations like Alaska because of modern distance learning techniques. “If there’s a good course in Norway or Turkey or Alaska why should not everybody benefit from it?” he asked.
Even cooperative long distance laboratory experiments may be possible. “If we can fly a jet in a simulator we can have mutual experiments,” Balaban suggested.
Nothing that Kodiak High School will begin offering a seafood science curriculum in 2012, Balaban said the program should expand downward to grade schools and upward through doctoral degrees and national and international exchange programs.
Listeners from the industry expressed support for Balaban’s suggestions. “I think Dr. Balaban’s comments this morning were really well taken, that we have an opportunity to become kind of a leader for the US and maybe Europe to have a centralized educational data-sharing lab, a virtual lab kind of thing. I would like to see that pursued,” said Sandro Lane, CEO of Alaska Protein Recovery, which converts salmon byproducts into high grade vitamin supplements for humans and animal feed.
Jeff Backlund, of North Pacific Seafoods said Balaban “is really pushing the program in Kodiak We’ve been very supportive of that. It’s going to be a stepwise process, but it’s needed.”
Lahsen Ababouch, head of the Fisheries Utilization and Marketing Service of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, said a business-focused curriculum could help bring seafood processing back to the US as continued mechanization reduces labor needs.
“We do believe whether we like it or not, it’s like textiles. It will be outsourced to where the labor is cheaper. So if you want to keep the value addition, lets says in the US, Iceland, Norway where you have low interest of people for this kind of jobs, robotization and highly sophisticated processing is the way,” Ababouch said.
The absence of an academic base here, and China’s one-child policy and its ongoing shortage of labor in seafood manufacturing and other sectors may also force US companies to send their fish even farther away if they continue to rely on low cost processing.
“When you have only one child you are trying to make them an engineer and so on. Vietnam, Thailand, India will be competitive for many years in labor. China, very soon, they will not have really the labor to do a lot of the manual work and if they have they will go to work for cleaner technologies,” Ababouch said. “I think innovation in equipment, that’s basically a must if you want to keep value addition in developed countries,” he added.