PORTLAND – Patrick Malia told me to pick up the 14-pound salmon — be careful, they’re slippery, he said — and look the silvery beauty in the eye.

“We sort of do a spot inspection, look at the eyes and make sure they’re nice and clear, not cloudy,” said Malia, 28, the shipping and receiving coordinator at North Atlantic Inc., a seafood processor and distributor on the waterfront in Portland. “And then you want to check in the gills, make sure there’s a nice red color. And look in the belly cavity, too.”

Malia said it’s unlikely any salmon coming to North Atlantic from the New Brunswick salmon farms they buy from would be bad. But it’s always good to check.

The salmon I was helping Malia pack last week had been trucked in from New Brunswick overnight and was to be trucked out to the Hannaford supermarkets’ distribution center in South Portland later in the day. Freshness is important in the fish business.

Behind Malia, a half-dozen or so people were on the salmon-cutting conveyor belt line. One man chopped off the head and tail, then a fillet machine cut open the fish. More men trimmed the fillets, another machine deboned the fish, then someone else plucked out the peskiest bones using tweezers. The fish was then inspected before being packed.

But the knives were sharp and the cutting was fast, so I stayed with Malia as he filled a special order for five cases of whole salmon.

To start, we hoisted 50-pound boxes of salmon from a stack and took them over to the scale. Then we took long Styrofoam boxes that hold just two salmon and lined them with plastic.

Then Malia instructed me to pick up a salmon, inspect it and put it in the two-fish box.

“You can pick it up by the gills or any way you can get it. Just don’t tear the gills,” he said.

So I stuck my fingers in the gills and got some blood on my rubber gloves. That hold didn’t feel safe by itself, so I also stuck one hand in the open belly cavity (the fish had been gutted).

It was still tough to pick up, and I dropped a few back into the box as we went.

We put the two-fish cases on a pallet, which Malia rolled into the cooler.

There I shoveled ice from a giant container — the size of a hot tub — over the fish. The ice, which was being made on the second floor and was falling sporadically through a hole in the ceiling into the container, was formed in flat shards.

Malia said that adding salt turned crushed ice into these flat shards, and that the flat ice was gentler on the fish than crushed ice.

But he told me that salmon fillets didn’t get ice shards, they get ice gel packs. That’s because actual ice can bleach the color out of a fillet, Malia said.

He also told me that as long as fish were stored in the proper cold temperatures, the ice was really a backup in case a cooler, or a cold truck, broke down.

After packing the special order, Malia drove a forklift around the plant, gathering up packed boxes and containers of fish to be shipped out. As I watched, I noticed the whole place was wet. There were some fish pieces on the floor and a bucket of saved fishheads in one corner, yet it didn’t smell fishy.

That was partly because North Atlantic’s plant is bathed in ozone-infused water, Malia and others there told me. Having ozone in the water creates a natural disinfectant, they said. So a steady stream of the water was running on the machines, and on the floor. There were little jets near doorways so workers could rinse off their shoes.

I could tell the place didn’t smell fishy because at one point I went into a trailer that had a container of monk fish waste, and no ozone water, and it smelled bad.

Malia — whose nickname is “Packy,” a name he says he got way before he started packing fish — was frequently going into the office to check order forms or to print labels. He had to fill out some very specific information for each order, including country of origin, destination and species of fish. North Atlantic processes and distributes dozens of kinds of fish, from cod and pollack to mahi mahi and tilapia.

“Species fraud, selling one kind of fish as another, is a federal crime, and so you have be very specific on everything you send out,” said Malia.

 

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]