It took 10 years, but today, the Makah Cape Flattery Fisherman’s Co-op in Neah Bay has realized the goal of processing their own fish fillets, adding value to the fish and jobs to the community.
Every step of processing done outside of Neah Bay is money that leaves the village. The co-op is happy to be in the business of filleting and packaging their own catch.
“The goal of the board of the co-op and the fishermen members was always to get back to processing our own fish,” said Joey Lawrence, Makah Co-op general manager.
It took several big investments on the part of the co-op, including the purchase of a machine that creates “ozonated” water. It kills bacteria and keeps it from growing on the fish for seven days. “It increases the shelf life of the fish, especially since we’re not trucking it away from here to undergo this process,” Lawrence said.
During the busy seasons, an estimated 25 tribal members are employed to fillet and package fish. A specialized machine gives each fillet the industry standard of skin on the fish including no skin. “That machine is smaller than a dishwasher but it costs about $50,000,” Lawrence said.
Employees fillet the fish and remove most of the bones before feeding the fillets into the skinning machine. The fish is then packed and vacuum sealed. “We have a blast freezer that keeps fish at 33 degrees, but most of this fish is off the water, processed, iced and on a truck to market within a day,” Lawrence said.
The co-op’s operation has passed the test for federal Food and Drug Administration certification.
Most of the fish being processed now is true cod, yellowtail, petrale and Dover sole, but the co-op also packages chinook for specialty markets in Los Angeles, Denver or Boston. “We couldn’t participate in that sort of market in the past,” said plant manager Roger Wertenberger.
The co-op also leased a truck that is a little smaller and can get into the tight alleys of downtown Seattle and Tacoma. “Our board and fishermen had this goal in mind and they took the steps needed to make it happen,” Lawrence said.
Future goals include getting the machinery to grind up the unused parts of the fish to use in the burgeoning pet food market. “We’re happy with our progress even with the learning curve,” Lawrence said. “We want to be known as the freshest fillets on the market.”