More processing equipment to be sold in Asia
Filleting pangasius in a factory in Vietnam where most fish processing is still done by hand. Credit: Herby Neubacher
The seafood reprocessing industry in Asia is about to change. The rising cost of labour, due to competition from other industries, may soon make it uneconomic to send fish to some countries there for further processing and to bring it back again.
The high cost of labour will inevitably lead to more automation in the fisheries sector. And this is already starting to happen. At the end of September, Pacific Andes, China’s biggest seafood processor, signed a deal with Marel for a new processing line to be installed in its whitefish factory on the outskirts of Qingdao.
Due for delivery by the end of this year, the line includes defrosting, cooling, grading and trimming equipment for the high volume processing of wild-caught species such as Alaska pollock and farmed freshwater fish such as pangasius and tilapia.
The installation is the first stage towards full automation in China’s largest whitefish production plant, and Pacific Andes has already announced plans to upgrade other plants with similar Marel systems, should the line prove a success.
Between five and 10 years ago it was not uncommon to observe in a processing plant in northern China, frozen H&G salmon from Alaska being thawed, portioned very carefully by hand and then re-frozen for shipment to Canada.
The only tool used, apart from a knife, would be a ruler to make sure that the portions were exactly the same size. Fish backbones would be held up to demonstrate to visitors that every scrap of flesh had been removed.
However, even five years ago, some processing equipment was starting to appear in Asian processing plants. Even in Vietnam, where processing by hand is still very much the norm, lines of Cretel skinning machines are now commonplace. Weigh graders are also being installed, but not filleting or portioning machines.
Marel, which was demonstrating a pangsius processing line at Seafood Processing Europe this year, is seeing some increase in automation in Vietnam. “But the economic situation there is clearly putting some restraint on potential investment,” says Stella Björg Kristinsdóttir, marketing manager fish industry.
“Therefore, the equipment we’re introducing for this industry is of a simple, standardised nature designed to achieve cost-efficient improvement in processing and optimisation of the processes.”
Baader tried out a pangasius processing line in a Vietnamese factory a few years ago but this equipment is not yet sold in Vietnam, although the company has since installed a pangasius processing line in a factory in India.
Although the high cost is a barrier to importing processing equipment, observers in Vietnam point out that processing shrimp for Japanese customers can be so specialised that it has to be done by hand.
Despite the current lack of processing equipment in Vietnamese fish factories it is inevitable that automation will play an increasing role as the country becomes more prosperous. Then the Vietnamese themselves will want to do other work rather than stand all day in a cold factory filleting fish.
In the meantime there is evidence that reprocessing for Western seafood companies may be moving to Vietnam, particularly as pangasius processing plants there have spare capacity due to the current shortage of raw material.
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