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No fish story here: Schafer Fisheries processes thousands of pounds per day
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Photo: Paul Colletti
Enrique Facio keeps the production line moving as fish come down the conveyor to be processed at Schafer Fisheries in Thomson, Ill.
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Photo: Paul Colletti
Fish are brought in and processed at Schafer Fisheries in Thomson. Employees constantly move from one station to another as the production schedule changes throughout the day.
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Photo: Paul Colletti
Matt Strohecker works on Schafer Fisheries' new organic fertilizer facility at the company's Thomson location.
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Photo: Paul Colletti
Stacks of fresh seafood wait at Schafer Fisheries to be shipped to buyers all over the world.
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Photo: Paul Colletti
Juan Padilla works alongside his coworkers as fish come down the production line at Schafer Fisheries in Thomson.
THOMSON, ILL. -- For more than 50 years, Schafer Fisheries has been processing fish caught within a 1,000-mile radius of the Quad-Cities.

The family-owned business is now the Midwest's largest processor and wholesale/retail distributor of fresh fish and frozen seafood. There are about 100 employees at the company's four locations, along with about 150 fishermen.

The amount of fish brought in daily depends on the weather; one recent weekend's intake was about 360,000 pounds. Contrary to what some might think, winter is not a slow season at Schafer's, according to general manager James Schafer.

"There may be fewer fishermen this time of year, but the catches are bigger," he said. "They do what we call seine hauls, which can catch a whole school of fish at one time."

The processing facility in Thomson has been open since June 2004 and is where local fishermen take their catches. The fishermen back their boats directly into the large dock/loading area for unloading. Fish are offloaded from the boats into combo bins, about the size of the bins used by hotel laundry services, and are sorted by species.

Fishermen usually bring in about 12 different kinds of fish, mainly from the Mississippi, Rock and Illinois rivers. The Illinois River provides big head carp, or Asian carp, the invasive fish that will jump right into a boat. Fortunately, big head carp are popular in ethnic communities in Chicago and the West Coast.

"We get millions of pounds of them every year," Mr. Schafer said. "Lots of our carp ends up in Chicago for Polish holidays."

Once they're sorted, the fish are weighed, set in holding tanks or processed within 24 to 36 hours of coming out of the river.

Processing starts with using a band saw to cut off the heads. Then they get a quick spray of water to force the fish oil back into the meat. After that, they move down a conveyor belt where workers clean and gut the fish and then place them in another tote.

"There's a little more leniency in processing fish this time of year, due to the colder temperatures," says Mr. Schafer. "We don't have to go as fast as we do in the summer."

When the weather is warmer, the fish are sent through the "individual quick freezing tunnel," which rapidly cools the fish before they can spoil. The tunnel is unnecessary in the winter, as the temperature in the processing plant is quite chilly. Employees are bundled up well against the cold and the door to the room-sized freezer is left open, with only the heavy vertical plastic strips in the doorway to keep the cold in.

Schafer processes its fish into a variety of cuts, such as fillets, steak cuts, horseshoe cuts, kitchen-ready cuts and minced fish.

"Ground fish can be used the same as ground beef — in tacos, burgers, meatloaf, chili, or sloppy Joes," Mr. Schafer said.

There is no one most popular fish at Schafer; it varies by season, depending on ethnic holidays and catchability.

The remnants from processing don't end up in the landfill; at the processing plant there's zero waste, as bones, scales and other parts are turned into a fertilizer called Schafer's Liquid Fish. The parts are ground up and allowed to ferment in 6,000-gallon tanks, creating a fertilizer that has higher oil and calcium levels while preserving the natural hormones, vitamins, minerals and other soil nutrients and activating the microbes in the soil, according to Mr. Schafer.

"Some people add our fertilizer to their compost to make their worms happy. Wide River Winery in Clinton uses our fertilizer in their vineyard."The company also sells shrimp and other seafood from all over the country. There had been some concern last year about seafood safety after the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, but, said Mr. Schafer, "the shrimp industry has bounced back."

Schafer even produces caviar. It takes about four fish -- bowfin, sturgeon and paddlefish are popular producers -- to produce 1 pound of the high-end delicacy. "We've been getting more orders for caviar coming in," says Mr. Schafer. "We're buying (the fish) from people in Missouri, Wisconsin and Kentucky."

In addition to its processing plant in Thomson, Schafer has a retail store in Fulton, a northern collection facility in Pepin, Wis., and a southern collection facility in Fort Madison, Iowa.

Schafer has its own fleet of 12 semis and sends three trucks a week to California, one truck a week to New York, and three trucks a week to Chicago.

It also ships products to several countries, including Canada, Germany, Romania, Poland, Sweden, Israel, Indonesia, China and Mexico.

For more information and to order products online, visit http://schaferfish.com/theSite/shop-online/.

Local events heading

  Today is Sunday, Sept. 21, the 264th day of 2014. There are 101 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: We hear that Col. Reynolds has employed C.D. Merrill to drill for water to supply the Rock Island Barracks.
1889 -- 125 years ago: Billy Catton, famous billard player, returned to Rock Island with a view to making this city his home in the future.
1914 -- 100 years ago: The belief is growing that a great decisive battle of the World War was being fought at Verdun, a strong fortress of France on the Meuse near the French frontier, according to a London dispatch.
1939 -- 75 years ago: William Stremmel, 91, Rock Island's last Civil War veteran, died.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Workmen of the Midwest Wrecking Co., Clinton, have begun razing the historic old office building of Deere & Co., 1325 3rd Ave., Moline. The site will be used by the Deere Plow Works for its shipping and receiving department.
1989 -- 25 years ago: East Moline developer Jim Massa says the financial package for the proposed $34.5 million Quad City International Motor Speedway is down to making sure "all the i's are dotted and t's are crossed. Finalizing this will give the green light to see if NASCAR and CART, the auto racing sanctioning bodies, approve race dates.

(More History)