How fishsticks are made

Yesterday, Radja Pasaribu took me on a tour of Fega Marikultura’s processing plant, where dozens of part-time workers dressed in rubber boots and hairnets prepared three tons of freshly-slaughtered barramundi for shipment to Bali, Singapore, Australia, and Los Angeles.

Radja and I donned scrubs, washed our hands, and strapped on face masks. I reached for the cloth mask that matched my blue scrubs and hairnet, but Radja stopped me.

“Here.” He tossed me a small green mask wrapped in plastic. I hesitated, but Radja urged me on: “Sure, they say they wash these, but…” He shook his head doubtfully. “The disposable ones are more sanitary.” I didn’t move. “You know, when you wash a face-mask, you have to treat it with sterilizing chemicals. And then you need to build a wastewater treatment plant. And a treatment plant is very expensive, maybe two, three million US dollars. And it uses a lot of energy, and a lot of water.” TouchĂ©. I unwrapped the papery green mask.

On the floor, we confronted the umami miasmi of fish flesh. “Hey,” Radja quipped, “at least it’s not rotten.” I thanked my stars for the mask, disposable or not.

In one room, workers beheaded fish, collecting the heads in a bin for fishhead soup. The entrails and bones, in another bin, would make fish meal to feed yet more fish; the scales, crushed for pearlescense used in lipstick; and even the skin, Radja claimed, could be used as a leather substitute.

“And the waste meat is used for value-added products,” Radja added. “You know, fish sticks.” Ah, yes. Value-added.

Radja was also keen to show off the plant’s ongoing renovations: new light fixtures and hygienic wall paneling for improved safety for workers and consumers. All in all it appeared a humming (if humdrum) operation. The plant is ISO 22000 Food Safety certified and uses every part of the fish.

But the processing plant is only 1/3 of Fega Marikultura. Processing fish, at least on this scale, is much less resource- and energy-intensive than raising them (transportation, I’m not sure… Radja says less than 1% of these fish will be consumed locally, on Java or Bali. Some of these barramundi will fly across the Pacific to a distributor in LA, and from there who-knows-where-else?) The other 2/3, the hatchery and farm, are waiting on Pulau Jukung. But rough seas and stormy weather kept the boat at bay this morning, so I won’t reach the island farm until next week. Until then, dear readers, remember: just because it smells fishy doesn’t mean it is…

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