Operating a cannery commune style


This is my last post from Maldives. It’s only been 5 days, but it’s been 5 fabulous days.

Prologue: on Thursday, while discussing Maldives capacity for processing pole and line caught tuna, a colleague from the International Pole and Line Foundation said something unusual. He said, we can’t just build a cannery. When you build a cannery, you need to build a town. Whatever could he mean?

On Saturday night I flew to Maandoo, where the Horizon Maandhoo Fisheries Complex (MFC) is located. This place has it all.

MFC is capable of processing 80 t of tuna per day. This is pole and line caught skipjack only. Right now they are processing about 25-30 t/day, and employ 400 people to do that. If they were running at full capacity, they would need about 1,000 employees. Their employees include what you would expect at a cannery: fish butcherers, fish cleaners, fish packers. But they also include cooks, laundry staff, housekeeping staff, mechanical and electrical engineers, experts in water desalination, groundskeepers, security staff, and retail personelle. This factory is a town. It is the only thing on the island of Maandhoo. There are no other houses or villages or restaurants or stores.

Employees that work at MFC are given housing. And food: 3 meals plus 2 coffee and snack breaks per day and I can attest that it was all excellent. All of their laundry is done for them. Entertainment is provided, like football play station tournaments (with the finals taking place while I was there!). The whole factory is powered by a diesel generator (although Horizon is looking at moving to 100% solar). The freshwater is provided through a massive water desalination plant.

Horizon aims for about 40% recovery of white meat from the skipjack landings. That leaves 60% of the fish as waste: heads, tails, fins, skin, bones and dark meat. So in addition to the cannery, MFC is also a fishmeal plant. What seemed like hundreds of meters of conveyor belts are constantly transporting waste from the canning process to the fishmeal factory. All of the fishmeal currently produced at MFC is exported to Sri Lanka for use in their poultry farming.

Back to the cannery. I saw some skipjack landed Saturday night. If the cannery does not have any fish in cold storage, the fish would have been weighed and taken directly as fresh fish to be processed. But tonight there is fish in cold storage, so this catch is weighed and put in the brine freezer overnight.

The next day it is taken out and each fish is sorted into species (they get some yellowfin, but it is exported as whole fish, not processed) and size categories. Next up: cold storage. The fish is frozen in a container labeled with a lot number: a type of ID that communicates which boat on which day landed this fish. That lot number coincides with data collected at the port about vessel operations.

The skipjack will stay in cold storage for about 7-10 days, depending on supply and demand. When it is needed, it is thawed, gutted, precooked, conditioned, butchered and cleaned. Then it is put in its can (or its pouch, depending on the product), sealed, sterilized, cooled, labeled and packed. So from the day the skipjack is landed at MFC, it is usually in a can in 2 to 10 days. Once packed, the product is left to incubate for 14 days, during which time if the sterilization process was unsuccessful, evidence would show. When everything gets the green light, the product is packed into shipping containers (where a final health check is conducted) and sets out for Male’ then to Colombo (Sri Lanka) and finally, it will reach its destination in Europe a couple of months later.

One of the requirements for MSC certification is that a chain of custody (COC) program should be in place. COC is a way of ensuring traceability – that one can trace the tuna from the tin at the supermarket all the way back to the vessel that caught it, and in fact to the ocean where it was extracted. This system is in place at MFC, and, although quite a bit of time and manpower is needed to set the system up, once running, it is an extremely smooth process. Everything is organized and tracked through a spreadsheet, and a catch certificate is issued with the product when it gets shipped out. This way, when the product arrives in the UK, for example, information is available on which vessels caught the tuna in those cans.

It seems to me that it is much easier if all of the tuna a factory buys is caught in the way deemed sustainable by the certifying body. So Horizon only buys from pole and line fishers catching skipjack and operating in Maldivian waters. In this way, all all the tuna can be stored and processed and shipped together and there is no need for separating any product. This is something that we might have to consider in our work in the western and central Pacific: instead of a cannery buying only small amounts of sustainably-caught fish and processing this separately, maybe factories should only buy from fishers whose catch is sustainably-sourced. The economics of this would obviously depend on supply and demand, and deserve some consideration. Good thing we have four years to think about these issues…


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