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Ikura - Roe - Caviar: The Art & Science Of Harvesting Salmon Eggs

“Caviar is tinned poetry.” - Sony Mordechai

Ikura and Whitefish


Walking through Anchorage International Airport in early spring is surreal; backpacks, fleece jackets, XtraTuf boots, and fly fishing gear abound. People moving toward their next ride in a seaplane or puddle jumper to an off-the-beaten-path location to prepare for summer season. I boarded my flight to Valdez via Raven Airlines - a now-defunct company decommissioned during the height of COVID-19. The low throttle and hum of the prop engines vibrated through my body as we took off for my summer-long destination. I gazed across the horizon at the glaciers in Prince William Sound as we flew along the Chugach National Forest into Port Valdez, overlooking Valdez Arm and the micro-airstrip ahead.

After spending time in Alaska working at a fish plant, I remember the smells, the noise of the Baader Tech system cutting salmon, the line workers separating females from males and harvesting their roe. Those bright orange eggs, held in a sac enmeshed and harnessed on the belly of 50-70 pound salmon. Ikura might come from king, chum, chinook, pink, sockeye, or red salmon. These are just a few examples of species used for Ikura production.

Salmon Roe

Prepping For The Season

Seasonal workers began rolling into town to start their four to six-month contracts to yield two million round pounds. The set-up and prep for this new operation was a learning curve for all involved, and it was my responsibility to understand the whole procedure and process flows to draft instructions for health and safety manufacturing and health regulations. For most, it was a bit of a snooze, but for me, it was exciting to walk the floor and deeply dive into “How is this made?” and “How does this system work?” Articulating the holistic nature of safe food production, environmental stewardship, and health & safety responsibilities. Yes, we do worry about food waste and corporate responsibility, but no stone is unturned when using every part of the fish. Companies are selling fish meal, food-grade salmon oil, Ikura, Sushi Grade, flash frozen, or fresh whole rounds to the marketplace. The fisherman and plant directors are savvy & good at marketing, sales, and distribution. After all, it is their livelihood, and protecting the oceans are a priority.

Salmon Ladder

The Wonders Of Ikura Processing & Curing

Once the salmon is sexed (male and female), the eggs are separated away from the female body, and curing begins while still in the protective sac. That sac is split by hand or using a separating machine to remove dead eggs and skein. Once cleaned, the Nikko System is set to wash the strings and remaining dead eggs before brine wash and grading. Experts and certified graders are onsite to call whether Roe is Graded 1, 2, or 3. Three being the lowest quality in the ranking.

The Ikura is floated into a vat called an Ikura Seasoner. The Ikura Seasoner is a mixing tank where brine is added, and the system slowly mixes the eggs without breaking them down into macerated bits. Eggs are pumped into a hopper, weighed, and prepped for packaging and distribution. Most buyers are present to taste test and watch their supplies as they are being processed. The science of processing Ikura goes much deeper into protecting them from Listeria, temperature control, and brining %’s.

Salmon and Salmon Roe

Packaging & Shipping

Once the Ikura makes it through brining and grading, the next step is to load it into various packages—for example, a 1-2 pound bento tray sealed for preservation. Roe also can be packaged in round tins from 28 grams to 100 grams of product. If you were to plan for a Sushi-making party, you could order Ikura from Copper River Seafood or Wild Alaska Salmon & Seafood Company. If you are a caterer and your client is requesting a sushi platter, you may want to call Peter Pan Seafood.


Wrapping It Up!

By end of season, little sleep has been gotten by all, and millions of pounds of product have been pushed out the door to The Lower 48 and Asia. As we approach the end of this salmon season, lugs are being packed and shipped and headed down to the local restaurants specializing in Ikura sushi. Contractors are sanitizing equipment and winterizing the plants for another season of bounty.

Salmon Fisherman

Ikura is processed and rapidly shipped to wholesalers in large lugs, on tractor trailers, and then off to the Anchorage Airport for shipping. Lines of UPS, FedEx, and sizeable private transport planes are put into action. As we sit in a sushi restaurant near home, ask the chef where she/he sources their Ikura. Most likely, they will know who they bought it from and what type of salmon it came from. For those who love Salmon Roe, a perfect place to start is in our kitchen, learning how to craft those small plates using creme fraiche, furikake, baguettes, and cucumbers.

Salmon Sashimi

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