A troller unloads iced coho salmon at the Seafood Producers’ Cooperative, one of the fish-processing plants on Sitka’s waterfront. Workers sort the gutted, hand-bled fish as President and CEO Tom McLaughlin looks on.

“There’s no blood marks in the flesh, there’s no bruises. Then they're hand-packed. It provides a great high-quality product.”

The state agrees. Seafood Producers’ Cooperative is one of six Alaska businesses and organizations that just received Governor's North Star Awards for International Excellence.

The cooperative has 520 active members. They fish mostly for salmon, halibut and black cod.

McLaughlin says they’ve all agreed to maintain consistent standards.

“Our owner members recognize you have to handle that fish and get it on ice quickly. So it really starts at the vessel. At the plant, we have a strict sanitary program. Otherwise, we’re in the food business. We’re not just in the fish business.”

The operation is headquartered in a cold-storage plant in Bellingham, Washington, and operates a processing facility in Sitka. It began in 1944 and is North America’s largest fishermen’s cooperative.

The state Commerce Department’s Patricia Eckert says it’s a logical choice for an export award.

“They do send about 50 to 60 percent of their product overseas and they are helping to build that Alaska brand in key international markets.”

The award carries no cash prize. But Eckert says it can help bring attention to the businesses’ products.

“I think it’s something they can use in communicating to the public, not just in Alaska, but in those international markets, how valuable their seafood is, how good their product is. “

Back in Sitka, McLaughlin shows off the fillet line and vacuum packaging line.

“We’re done running for the day here. We do a complete sanitation job in this room every day. We don’t run this around the clock. We have a 4 to 6 hour cleanup every day.”

Seafood Producers’ Cooperative processes about 12 million pounds of fish a year at its Sitka plant. McLaughlin says it also has agreements with other packers to handle seafood from its owner-members. Total sales last year were a little more than $50 million.

“I always tell everybody I have 520 stockholders. They own the company. It's our jobs to get them a return on their investment. So the challenge is to provide the return over and above the price they would get from selling to somebody else.”

The cooperative handles about two-thirds of Alaska’s troll-caught salmon. It also handles halibut, rockfish and tuna. And it’s expanding its black cod, or sablefish, market.

In another room at the plant, headed, gutted frozen cod spills off a conveyor belt onto a rotating aluminum disc. Workers sort it, box it and load it into freezer vans for quick shipment.

“We sell most of this in Asia. However, there's a growing demand here in the United States and even in Europe. So we’re being more diversified.”

Another Governor’s North Star Export Award went to Western Alaska’s Coastal Villages Region Fund, which recently opened an office in Japan.

Other awards went to All Alaska Tours, China Airlines, Institute of the North, and the Alaska Sudan Medical Project. All, except China Airlines, are based in Anchorage.
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