Fresh and fly: Our freighters carry prized Alaska seafood to the world

Boxes of geoducks ready to be loaded on the Alaska Air Cargo freighter in Ketchikan in 2019. (Photo courtesy Gateway Seafoods)

The Southeast Alaska geoduck fishery is a tiny part of the state’s $5.6 billion seafood industry – but everything about the harvest operates on a grand scale.

Geoducks are packed in Styrofoam boxes. (Photo courtesy Gateway Seafoods)

The giant clams weigh up to 7 pounds apiece. They can live 100 years. And when the harvest starts each October, divers deliver geoducks by the half-ton to Ketchikan – with 20,000 pounds arriving on a typical fall Wednesday night for Gateway Seafoods to process for shipment. By Saturday midday local time, those clams will be halfway across the world in cities like Shanghai or Hong Kong, destined for the tanks of fine restaurants and markets where they sell for around $50 a pound. 

The first crucial link in the prized geoducks’ journey across the Pacific: The Thursday morning Alaska Air Cargo freighter from Ketchikan (KTN) to Seattle (SEA). 

“It’s not uncommon for us to get that product from the divers at 8, 9, 10 o’clock at night, and we’ve got to be at the airport at 6 o’clock in the morning,” says Rod Thomas, co-owner of Gateway, which has been packing geoducks for more than 15 years. “It is all night, fast and furious, cranking this out and getting it to the guys at Alaska Air Cargo to get it moved out to Asia.”

The state of Alaska’s wildly diverse seafood industry ranges from the Ketchikan geoducks to Bristol Bay salmon, and from Yakutat halibut to the crab catch in the far-western Aleutian Islands. Frozen fish often leaves the state by truck or barge, but millions of pounds of fresh seafood and live shellfish ship out every year on Alaska Air Cargo, making our 20 stations crucial partners for the commercial fishermen and processors who send their products across the U.S. and around the world.

“Our teams are a part of these communities and we work hard to do our best for the seafood industry and businesses across the state,” says Shannon Stevens, Alaska Air Cargo’s sales representative for the state for more than 16 years.

Spotlight: Yakutat

About a third of the Alaska seafood carried each year on Alaska Air Cargo is halibut, and much of that fish comes from Yakutat (YAK) in Southeast Alaska – and a valued partnership stretching back to 2005. That year, Greg Indreland started Yakutat Seafoods and began working with Stevens to find the best routes for shipping fresh halibut and salmon. “It was the beginning of the fresh market really developing into the Lower 48,” Indreland says.

Indreland, together with E&E Foods in Seattle, has developed markets for Yakutat halibut across the country, with the biggest demand now in Seattle, Portland (PDX), Los Angeles (LAX) and Chicago (ORD) – and markets growing fast in other cities like Dallas (DFW).

“We can fly fish out of Yakutat into Seattle or Anchorage and then distribute them throughout the whole United States,” he says.

Alaska Air Cargo’s seamless connections and decades of expertise in cold-chain shipping are key to preserving the quality of the halibut, which Indreland ships whole for optimum freshness. “Our big selling point with Yakutat is that if we catch it on Sunday, you’ve got it on your plate Tuesday,” says Indreland, whose customers include seafood distributors, markets and restaurants. 

“We have a high-end fish that we can get a hold of really fast, and we can get to the consumer really fast,” he says. “It’s all because of the geography of the fish being close to the city and having daily jet service. And we all work really hard.”

Indreland and Stevens stay in close contact to coordinate exactly how much space he needs for his fish. An Alaska Air Cargo freighter leaving Yakutat might carry 35,000 pounds of Yakutat Seafoods fish. “The deal I’ve always made with Shannon is that you give me the space, I’ll fill it. And she takes care of us,” he says. “My goal is to maximize the income for Alaska Airlines and Yakutat Seafoods on that plane.”

“It takes a team effort – from the seafood company employees to Alaska Airlines to the [Department of Transportation] people who make sure the runways are clear in the middle of the winter,” Indreland says, adding praise for ground crews who expedite the fish into cold storage. “I’m just one link in this whole chain that makes it all work,” he says. “Everybody’s pulling the same weight. This partnership has worked out really well, and we’re very appreciative.”

The big picture

A halibut harvester in Juneau. (Photo courtesy ASMI)

Across the state, salmon and Alaska pollock fisheries are the biggest – but the Yakutat halibut and Ketchikan geoduck fisheries are among the highest value per pound, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). Yakutat and Ketchikan are also consistently among the top 5 stations shipping fresh seafood on Alaska Air Cargo each year. Even though Copper River salmon out of Cordova (CDV) often gets the brightest spotlight when it kicks off each May, more seafood comes out of these two stations – as well as Anchorage (ANC), Juneau (JNU) and Petersburg (PSG) – in a typical year.

Much of the fresh Alaska seafood is destined for West Coast markets, but demand is growing in New York (JFK), Orlando (MCO) and Boston (BOS).

Throughout Alaska, fishermen and seafood processors also rely on Alaska Air Cargo to ship parts and supplies, says Ashley Heimbigner, communications director for ASMI. “Most of these operations are huge logistical feats to pull off — in remote locations with infrequent barge service and with short windows of opportunity,” she says.

And the marketing group depends on our services to send samples to chefs, customers and trade shows. “We rely on the quality of the Alaska Air Cargo cold chain to ensure the Alaska seafood products we send arrive in the best possible condition and showcase the incredible quality to the customers,” Heimbigner says.

Spotlight: Ketchikan

A Gateway Seafoods truck loaded with geoducks packed for the freighter. (Photo courtesy Gateway Seafoods)

Even before the first geoducks are harvested each October, Alaska Air Cargo plays a role in the fishery’s success. Every week during the season, the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association (SARDFA) tests for paralytic shellfish poisoning before divers get the go-ahead to harvest. The test samples – live geoducks – are sent to the Alaskan Department of Environmental Conservation in Anchorage via our premium next-flight shipping service, GoldStreak Package Express.

“We rely on Alaska Airlines to get our test results and to get the live product out,” says Kate Sullivan, co-executive director of SARDFA.

Geoduck harvests are limited to 2% of a region’s total surveyed population to keep the fishery sustainable, Sullivan says, and divers, processors and cargo crews take care to protect the valuable live product. The morning freighter stop in Ketchikan provides the fastest connection to Seattle. “We prefer that they go on the freighters because they can stay on pallets and get handled less,” says Thomas, whose Gateway Seafoods team shrink-wraps 20 boxes of geoducks into pallets that weigh about 1,200 pounds.

Thomas says the personal customer service and regular communications from the Ketchikan cargo teams helps Gateway ensure the geoducks make that Boeing 737-700. “We’re a small community here, and these local guys are great,” he says. “They’re checking up with me in the evening before to say ‘Hey, how’s it looking for tomorrow? We want to be sure that we’re staffed up enough for the morning.’”

“The geoduck fishery wouldn’t go off if it wasn’t for Alaska Air Cargo,” Thomas says. “This fishery is a 100 percent live market. And if they don’t get the space to ship this out, the fishery just doesn’t go off.”

A Hong Kong market sells live geoducks (top right) among other fresh seafood. (Adobe Stock images)

Learn more:

How to ship seafood with Alaska Air Cargo

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