Local micro-cannery reels in quality tuna

Pelican Packers started as a way for two fishing families to can their own catch and now works with 25...

By Isaac Bonnell

Sometimes the best business ideas don’t come from years of planning and research, but from the needs of the present. Such was the case for two local fishing families, the Coskys and the Edwardses.

Back in the summer of 1997, both families found themselves sitting on the docks unable to sell their boatloads of tuna. The market was flooded with fish and all the major canneries weren’t buying any more tuna for the season. So the two families decided to start their own cannery, Pelican Packers.

“The idea was easy, but doing it was hard,” said Harvey Cosky, who has been fishing since 1970. “It’s harder to sell tuna than it is to can it.”

At the time, Pelican Packers was one of the first micro-canneries to offer fishermen an alternative to selling their catch to the large canneries. Now micro-canneries, which process small batches of fish and often tailor toward higher-end customers, are almost as popular on the West Coast as microbreweries.

Pelican Packers struggled at first to make a name for itself and convince fishermen to basically go into business for themselves, but now the cannery contracts with about 25 other independent companies and fishermen.

“A large part of our growth has been canning for other fishermen who sell their fish at farmers markets,” said Russ Edwards, president of Pelican Packers.

The cannery now keeps busy year-round, producing products such as tuna paté or tuna with dill or jalapeños. Edwards no longer fishes — his father retired and sold the family boat several years ago — but the cannery has given him more than enough to do.

“We try to process a ton of fish a day — that makes about 2,000 cans, depending on what size can we’re using,” Edwards said.

For Cosky, who still fishes and sells his troll-caught albacore tuna under the name Wild Pacific Seafood, the cannery has given him a chance to capitalize on a niche market for quality tuna.

Cosky uses trolling gear — baited hooks that are dragged through the water — which allows him to handle each fish individually as he pulls them aboard his 60-foot boat that he built himself in Blaine. He bleeds each one and then lets it cool on the deck before immersing it in salt water for about five hours.

After a good soak, the fish are then stored onboard in a freezer that is kept at -25 degrees Fahrenheit. This process ensures that the meat stays firm and retains it’s natural oils.

Cosky and his wife, Judy, fish up and down the West Coast until their hold is full, which usually takes about six weeks. When they get back to port, they unload about 40 tons of tuna for storage at Bellingham Cold Storage, where it is kept until it is time to be canned.

The canning process is simple: each fish is gutted and the meat is cut into chunks that will fit into the cans. The cans are then sealed and cooked in a large pressure cooker for 90 minutes.

It’s a simple process — and Cosky wouldn’t have it any other way.

“That’s what we do: make real simple, delicious food,” he said.

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