They chatter in French, Russian, Japanese, Spanish and English.
Some 110 surimi seafood re-searchers, processors and marketers from around the world meet and greet during a morning break from an industry forum in Astoria.
The industry professionals have come from as near as Hammond and as far as Peru to attend the Oregon State University Surimi School this week. The annual event has helped make Astoria a focus point for information on the opaque fish solid.
The schoolmaster is Jae Park, a Ph.D. food scientist recognized as a world leader in surimi processing research. Park is largely responsible for creating the week-long professional school, which is in its 11th year. The OSU professor has also taken the series of lectures and hands-on lab sessions overseas, conducting OSU Surimi Schools in Paris and Bangkok, Thailand. Park said more than 200 people attend the various surimi schools each year.
"I'm pretty excited about all that," he said.
So what is surimi?
Surimi is a Japanese word that means minced or formed fish.
You ate it the last time you had imitation crab, lobster or scallops, or one of hundreds of other processed seafood products.
The process was invented hundreds of years ago in Japan. Surimi processors start with mild, white fish such as pollock or Pacific whiting. The fish is skinned, headed, boned, repeatedly washed with fresh water, minced and pressed into a paste. Processors mix in different starches, eggs, potatoes or cryoprotectants and blast freeze it to form a solid. Surimi is sold to food manufacturers who add flavors and colors, cook it and cut it into shapes, creating surimi seafood.
Park, who came to the OSU Seafood Laboratory in 1992 after managing research and development at a large seafood processing company, said total world surimi production is about 500,000 metric tons. Of that, 45 percent is produced in the United States.
Japan consumes 65 percent of the world product, Park said. However, demand for surimi there has been declining, according to Pascal Guenneugues, an international seafood consultant who gave a presentation Monday. Other surimi consumers include Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, China, Europe and the United States. There are also small markets in South America and Australia. Demand for surimi is growing by more than 20 percent a year in Europe.
Since its 12th century origins in Japan, surimi processing technology has crossed the Pacific Ocean, Park said. Japanese company Kibun Foods Inc., one of the largest users of surimi, sent three top executives to the school this year.
"I would say surimi is now Americanized," Park said, adding, "Oregon has a unique position to be at the center of surimi technology."
Surimi is produced locally by Pacific Coast Seafoods in Warrenton and Point Adams Packing Company in Hammond. Park said these two local plants are leading the industry in the production of surimi using Pacific whiting.
Whiting, which is also commonly called hake, is the largest West Coast fishery. Developed by fishers from the Soviet Union and eastern Europe in the late 1960s, the fishery evolved to become totally domestic the 1990s, when it filled some of the economic void left by plummeting salmon runs. Whiting is caught locally by trawl vessels.
The total catch of whiting on the West Coast, including Canadian fisheries, declined steadily in the mid- to late-1990s and into this century. It peaked at more than 350,000 tons in 1994, bottoming out at about 170,000 tons last year. But signs of recovery are on the horizon.
Management of the abundant fishery was one of the topics discussed at the surimi school and its associated industry forum Monday.
"There's a lot of uncertainty here with whiting," said Vidar Wespestad, chief scientist for the Pacific Whiting Conservation Cooperative. There are signs of "a lot of fish out there," he said, adding that he "expects the biomass estimate to jump up significantly.
"I think we're in pretty good shape and getting better," Wespestad said.