The diverse workforce at Marine Harvest’s salmon processing plant showcases a fresh take on rural farming creating urban opportunities
By Fabian Dawson and Samantha McLeod
Ramandeep Singh Sekhon wrinkled his nose when told about a job at the fish processing plant near the USA-Canada border in Surrey.
“I was worried about the smell,” said Sekhon, who was fresh out of school and looking to build a skills and trades career.
Today, two years later, Sekhon is a production lead at Marine Harvest’s secondary fish processing plant in Surrey – smelling success and breathing easy about his future.
“People think that working with fish is smelly and bad but here it’s very clean and the fish…they don’t have any smell at all,” said Sekhon, 22, whose family hails from Punjab, India.
“People in my crew love working here and live here in the area,” said Sekhon, whose assembly-line colleagues are mostly New Canadians from India and Vietnam.
For Jason Swanson, the plant manager, Sekhon and his charges reflect Marine Harvest’s commitment to diversity, hiring locals and building local economies.
“Many look at the fish farming industry as providing jobs in isolated areas and coastal communities but this plant is all about rural farming providing urban opportunities,” he said.
Swanson, who graduated from the University of B.C. with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Bio-Resource Engineering, started out in aquaculture as a contractor for Marine Harvest in Klemtu, B.C.
Since March 2016, he has been planning and designing the Surrey plant, collating and putting into place best practices and technology from Europe.
The 23,000 square feet secondary processing plant went operational last December with a capacity to process 120,000 pounds of fish a day on two shifts.
Currently the plant processes about 50,000 pounds of salmon a day on one shift with an employee base of about 60 people.
Marine Harvest’s secondary fish processing plant on 152 Street in South Surrey is a sterile mega-operating room with strict bio-protocols that go into effect as soon as you step into the administrative quarter of the building.
The fish harvested from the pens located in B.C.’s pristine ocean waters, go through primary processing in Port Hardy, after which they are transported here in special refrigerated trucks.
“They arrive between two to three days after being harvested,” said Swanson.
In Surrey, under close supervision, the salmon are put through a Marel 2730 Filleting Machine, which can process up to 25 fish per minute. The average size of a salmon that arrives at the plant are about 5.5kg.
As the fillets go through the processing line, the cuts are manually checked, with at least eight workers inspecting them for pin bones and removing them by hand.
The salmon heads have found a new market with the growing Asian diaspora where it is used in soups and curries.
Everything else is sent to a company which uses the remains to produce animal feed and fertilizer.
“There is almost no wastage here and if any part of the fish touches the floor, it is discarded immediately and there is no bloody effluent from this plant,” said Swanson.
“The wastage is ridiculously small as close to 90 percent is meat…left-over meat in trimmings are scraped by hand for a client.”
The fish are inspected once again at the end of the assembly line, graded, checked for bruising and appearance before being packed in bulk boxes with ice. They are then sent on their way to supermarkets and sellers with an 18-day shelf-live.
So why is there no fishy smell?
“That’s because the fish is fresh, never frozen and only air chilled…the lack of smell speaks to the freshness of the product,” said Swanson, adding the plant was constructed with a 10-year expansion plan, in mind.
That includes the ability to prepare value-added packaged meals and skin-packed products, for which Marine Harvest has already acquired the machines.
Jeremy Dunn, public affairs director for Marine Harvest, said the secondary processing plant in Surrey ensures the company’s sustainability standards and quality controls are maintained from farm to table.
“Before this plant, we were selling mostly whole fish to clients who would then process them for the market…now we process all our fish for our clients,” he said.
“We are the only company in B.C. that harvest fish every single week…If we tell a customer we only have fish on certain days they will not be interested because they want to have fresh fish available year-round.
“As the demand for fish continues to go up, there’s not enough wild fish to sustain that demand…retailers want fresh fish 52 weeks a year…the wild suppliers cannot do that, they can give fresh fish for a couple of weeks a year and other than that it is frozen…that doesn’t mean it is bad quality, it’s just that certain retailers and certain customers want fresh fish all the time.
“They like the fact that the salmon they sell was swimming in the ocean just a few a days ago,” said Dunn.
The diverse workforce at the Surrey plant also affords a cultural conduit for Marine Harvest as B.C. raised salmon gains popularity with New Canadians.
“In the Indian community, they mostly eat cod but now they are becoming increasingly aware of salmon, and choosing salmon more often,” said Sekhon.
“Back in India, they do not have salmon fish farms. If we should introduce our packaged salmon there, the consumption would be huge… I discussed this with my relatives back in India and they actually are pretty interested in this idea.”
“My friends…they always ask me about my work…first thing they ask is if it smelly…I tell them no…it’s like working in a chocolate factory and then they want to know more,” added Sekhon.
For Marine Harvest, that’s a welcomed by-product from its secondary fish processing plant in Surrey.