Will high-tech fish freezing come to Spit?

A thawed salmon filet that tastes the same as a fresh one? Is this too good to be true?

A group that calls itself Ocean Rich Communities of Alaska, or ORCA, says it is interested in bringing a high-tech Japanese freezing technology to the Homer Spit that can produce once-frozen fish indistinguishable from fresh fish even by Japan’s top sashimi chefs. The technology, they say, can freeze fish and other food for up to 30 years with no major degradation in quality. 

ORCA representatives have come to Homer numerous times and have met with Rep. Paul Seaton, City Manager Katie Koester and Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins and have given a presentation at the Homer-Kachemak Bay Rotary Club to raise awareness about the project and discuss a lease of city property on the Spit.

One of the group’s founders, Andrey Khalkachan, said the organization plans to bring the freezing technology — called Cells Alive System, or CAS — to Alaska via Homer. ORCA plans to lease two lots on the Spit at the corner of Spit and Fish Dock roads as well as use a portion of the concrete chip pad on the east side of the harbor to put into action an ambitious project that would have implications for seafood processing in Homer and across Alaska.

The group envisions a 2,000-square-foot facility on the Spit where commercial and sport-caught fish could be processed using CAS.

In addition, the group plans to manufacture containerized fish processing units that would include CAS freezers. The group would then sell these units to coastal villages in Southcentral and Western Alaska for between $500,000 and $1 million. The Spit facility would also provide training to village residents in how to use the modular processors.

Khalkachan said this infrastructure would mean 45-55 jobs in Homer.

ORCA’s goal, Khalkachan said, is to serve communities that have fish but need employment. The group’s mission is to foster food and economic security by making it easier for remote coastal villages to get high quality fish to market and to see the returns of adding value to their products through local processing. 

In addition to selling the CAS freezers, ORCA intends to provide logistical support to bring CAS-frozen Alaska seafood to market. 

Khalkachan’s partner in the effort, David Karabelnikoff, said that fish once frozen by CAS can be stored in regular freezers and shipped — rather than flown — to markets. But the product would be as good as fresh, he said.

The group chose Homer because it’s a “good hub,” for villages in Cook Inlet and the greater the Gulf of Alaska region, Khalkachan said. It’s on the road system, which makes it convenient. And, Khalkachan added, it’s a beautiful place. He lives in Anchorage now but would like to spend more time in Homer. 

Khalkachan, who is of indigenous descent from Russia, came to Alaska for the first time in 1996 on a scholarship to study political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Karabelnikoff grew up in Anchorage but his family is from the Pribilof Islands. He spent summers as a kid setnetting on the west side of Cook Inlet near Tyonek and Beluga. Karabelnikoff, who now lives in Oakland, Calif., has a background in renewable energy and Native community development.

CAS was developed in Japan about 15 years ago and is used in food processing as well as in tissue preservation. The technology works by reducing or eliminating cell damage in the freezing process. 

Normally when you put a salmon fillet in the freezer, water in the fillet forms crystals, which burst cell walls. The cells then leak liquid and flavor out of the fillet once it’s thawed. CAS works by vibrating the cells during cooling, which limits the formation of ice crystals. ORCA has not yet put CAS technology into action, but is seeking exclusive rights to use it in Alaska.  

Khalkachan said CAS enables fish to be frozen multiple times without a loss in quality. During big salmon runs, fish can be frozen when it’s fresh using CAS. Then it can be processed the next day, the next month, even years down the road, he said. 

The group envisions CAS as a way to preserve, at least temporarily, culturally important foods for Alaska Native communities. 

“Within 30 years, we might not have walrus. But with this technology, we can have this food that’s precious,” Khalkachan said. “It’s a time machine for food.”

The goals are captivating, but right now, they’re grand ideas without funding and there’s little on paper. The group says they plan to raise between $2.5 million and $5 million and are seeking venture capital in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

This is not the first time these individuals have worked to raise money for big ideas. In earlier cases, plans didn’t come to fruition, leaving some people disappointed. 

Tommy Evans is one of those people. He is a resident of the village of Nanwalek on the south side of Kachemak Bay, and a member over the years of the Nanwalek IRA Council. Evans’ sister Anita Evans was married to Khalkachan for two-and-a-half years. They are now divorced.

Tommy Evans recalls numerous projects Khalkachan discussed with village residents, including having them be “goodwill ambassadors” to indigenous communities in Russia, establishing an import/export reindeer meat business and selling Alaskan salmon in Russia. 

According to Evans, Khalkachan sought support from the Nanwalek IRA Council which, according to Evans, donated $2,500 for a project that never happened. 

“They put on this really big show to speak about things…he’s a real smooth talker,” Evans said. “A lot more red flags kept popping up.” 

Karabelnikoff countered by saying that proposing ambitious projects that might not come to pass is “part of the entrepreneurial world.” 

He added that “No one has cracked the nut about how to deal with unemployment in rural Alaska.” The problems are difficult, and so are the solutions.

Despite the fact that the group intends to lease land from the city, ORCA hasn’t submitted the required lease application. 

“I’m anxious to see a written proposal to give to the lease committee,” Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins said. It takes the city about three months to process these applications, which presents a tough timeframe because the organization, Khalkachan said, plans to be on the Spit in November.

City Manager Katie Koester has met with ORCA twice. The second time, Koester was surprised when the group brought a video crew to record the meeting. Khalkachan said the organization intends to produce a documentary about the project.

“We can’t even start to consider pros and cons until we see something in writing,” Koester said.

Miranda Weiss is a Homer writer.