New seafood refrigeration class trains next generation of specialists


Chadwick Watters works for Leader Creek Fisheries in Naknek – near Bristol Bay – and is at the end of an in-person ammonia refrigeration training. 

“This class was advertised to us through our facility manager and he kind of told us that this would be a good opportunity to learn more, get more hands on experience and really go into and dive into the depth of ammonia refrigeration systems,” he said. 

Watters, in the back row with the hat, was part of the second section of the week-long in-person class, October 13, 2023. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

Watters is pretty new to working with ammonia. Trainees like him start studying a six-hour online module before they make their way to Kodiak for a weeklong course.

Alaska is famous for its fisheries, but the state’s seafood can’t stay fresh without refrigeration. Many processors run ammonia-based equipment to keep fish frozen, and a new class in Kodiak aims to prepare the next generation of appliance specialists. Watters said the things he’s learning are fascinating. 

“I started off as a processor at Leader Creek Fisheries, then I went over to maintenance and then from there, I got put into refrigeration and I enjoyed it,” he said. “I liked the science behind it and I decided to continue that.” 

The class in Kodiak is the first of its kind in the state. Instructors completed the first classes on Oct. 13. Watters and his peers learned from industry professionals in a newly renovated facility, the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center on Near Island.

Caleb Taylor is the seafood processing workforce development coordinator for Alaska Sea Grant and helped organize the training. He said processors used to have to send workers to the lower 48 to get certified. 

“Traditionally they’ve had to send folks out of state to do this kind of training and that training they get down south isn’t even necessarily for seafood processors,” he said. 

Taylor said it took a lot of collaboration to put a class together. They had to prepare the training facility, schedule with Kodiak processors, and they reached out to processors across the state to send staff to train. Companies then paid those workers’ tuition, travel, and stay on the island.

Tom Lance is the president of the Alaska Research Consortium, a nonprofit based in Kodiak focused on supporting the seafood industry. He said the organization conducted a survey of processors in 2020 that pointed to a huge demand for a class like this. 

“It highlighted what are the most important needs of the seafood industry in Alaska, and most of the large processors identified ammonia refrigeration as their greatest need – filling those jobs before all of their experienced people are gone,” he said. 

Watters and his colleagues tested ammonia alarms and focused on safety throughout their class, October 13, 2023. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

He said refrigeration is another field facing challenges because of the national shortage of trade workers. 

Amy Duz is the president of iWorkWise, a safety, health, and environmental consulting company. She said most processors used to rely on experienced workers training their successors over time, but that’s not a reliable model anymore. 

“I think now with the problems in the employment market, it’s getting harder and harder to rely on that and there’s more and more need for consistency,” she said. 

Now that this class is available, processors can be a bit more prepared for when their more experienced staff retire. Duz said having a class focused on refrigeration in Alaska means instructors can specialize on the specific needs of the state’s seafood industry. 

Working with ammonia can be dangerous though – at least one person died this summer due to a suspected leak aboard a factory trawler. Duz said this class sets a baseline of safety precautions and can help fill any knowledge gaps for trainees. 

“Taking that off the shoulders of the people in the plants I think is really important,” she said. “It provides that consistency. And employers will know what to expect and what that person knows coming in.”

Watters, the student, said he’s learned a lot from the class and is excited to bring it back to work at Leader Creek. 

“A lot of the safety procedures and documentation has been something that we really got to focus on, especially on maintaining equipment to avoid any unsafe practices,” he said. “If you have the opportunity to learn refrigeration and you enjoy it, this is a good class to take.”

The first two beginner classes wrapped up earlier this month, but organizers are already working on planning more soon. The next level of classes will take place next fall and the ultimate goal is to have a series of classes for folks to keep up to date on the best practices for ammonia refrigeration.

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