In this series we talk to young people who work and live in Alaska about what they do and why with the goal of educating people about Alaska's unique industries. These articles are based on interviews I do on Instagram Live @AlaskaShow. Check it out if you want to hear our guests first hand and ask questions!
Kinsey doesn't call herself a fisherman, she calls herself a “seafood professional."
Many commercial fishermen grow up on boats. They learn the trade as deckhands on their parents' seiners and gillnetters.
But Kinsey got her foot in the door another way.
Her first "fish job," as she calls it, was working behind the counter at a grocery store in high school where she weighed and packaged fillets and shellfish - working with a variety of seafood and learning about customers' tastes firsthand through one-on-one interaction. She didn't think a simple high school job at a grocery story would lead her to a life of helping people eat fresh, wild-caught Alaska seafood, but she was so captivated by it she came to Alaska after college to work for regional seafood development association, a non-profit funded by the fishing fleet to advertise and do market research on their wild-caught seafood.
Since then her career has spanned most of the salmon supply chain from fisherman to wholesaler to marketer - even to working the fish counter at a grocery store. She's truly done it all.
The Journey from the Boat to your Plate
Part of what was so captivating about that first job at the grocery store, Kinsey says, was the vastness of America's seafood industry. Fishermen trawled the coasts from Alaska to LA, and Louisiana to South Florida all the way up to Maine - catching sea creatures that she prepped and wrapped and weighed out for customers. She wanted learn about how each serving got out of the water and into her hands.
Like other fisheries, people are most familiar with Alaskan seafood at the end of its journey - chilling behind the gleaming glass at the grocery store or steaming hot in front of them at a restaurant.
Some are familiar with the beginning of the journey. While few spend time working on a commercial fishing vessel, it's an activity that's well suited for social media and television. The working conditions are rugged and dangerous, the fishermen are brave and tough, and the scene is wild and beautiful
But what happens in between? A process, it turns out, that's ripe with opportunity for those who are passionate about wild-caught Alaskan seafood.
Let's take a Copper River Red for example - a world-famous and pricey species of sockeye salmon that gets caught early each summer in the Copper River flats just east of Cordova, Alaska.
The first step is obviously the catching. A gillnetter leaves the Cordova harbor, goes out to the Copper River flats, and catches the fish. The fisherman then immediately bleeds and drops the fish into a hold on the boat filled with "slush ice" - big flakey ice mixed with seawater - to keep the catch as fresh and perfectly preserved as possible. Remember: seafood needs to move FAST to maintain quality.
Next, the fisherman will head back to the docks in Cordova with his or her catch. Fishermen might fish for a specific market like Trident or Ocean Beauty, but some will play the field and deliver to whoever is paying the most that day.
The processing crew for the market takes the fish at the dock and takes the temperature (by sticking a thermometer up the fish's bum - just thought you should know) to ensure that the fish is sufficiently cold. They need it to be at a temperature that keeps the meat fresh or they can't buy it from the fisherman.
Right away the fish go into a big blue tote cooler and travel to the processing facility in town - a journey as short as a few hundred yards. This is usually where the fish's journey stops on social media because processing facilities are like slaughterhouses - they're not so pretty.
Workers are lined up on "the floor" wearing gloves, face masks and hairnets. A machine cuts the salmon’s heads off. The the fish goes down the line - sometimes into a “pocket conveyor” where the salmon lays with its belly up - to be sliced open and gutted with running water. A lot of fish are sold just like that - called “H&G” or "headed and gutted." Some get filleted further and portioned for the grocery store.
When that fish leaves the plant it already has a destination - one that's been secured weeks or months in advance. Copper River fish or early season fish will be shipped fresh in gel packs to airport hubs overnight or within the next day. It’s realistic to be in the lower 48 eating fresh Alaskan salmon that were alive less than 48 hours ago.
In the middle of salmon season when the fishermen are catching huge volumes of lower-value pink salmon on seiners (different type of fishing boat) processing plants will freeze them instead of shipping fresh.
Small towns in Alaska like Cordova typically only do what's called primary processing, meaning they'll do H&G or fillets. If a fish needs to be further processed like smoked or jarred or dried it usually goes down to the Lower 48 frozen at the end of the season to be further processed in another facility. They don’t have all the resources to do that in commercially Cordova.
Jobs in the Processing Plant
There are a lot of entry-level positions at processing plants. For people who didn’t grow up in a fishing family or aren’t from Alaska and want to work in Alaska seafood or become a fisherman it's a great place to start your career. Working on the floor at a processing plant is a very physical job and it's challenging because you can't just punch out at the end of the day - everyone stops working when the fish stop coming.
On the floor you will work different stations on the floor like heading, gutting, packaging, or sorting. But as you rise through the ranks and are there for 2 or more seasons you can work in more of a management position such as the head fileter or the head packager. A lot of the managers will also take additional food safety and quality training.
You don't need a higher education to get a processing job. They will take on people at any education level who are willing to work hard. These jobs are seasonal and only available when the fish are being caught - mostly between June and August in salmon centers like Cordova.
Right now, mid-April, is when these companies are hiring. If you go online and search "Alaska Fish Processor Jobs" you can probably find tons of openings.
The other great thing about processing versus being a fisherman if you are trying to break into the industry is you can get hired online as a processor. Processing plants are known for flying people in as part of employment. For fishing jobs, unless you know someone, you have to physically show up in town and "walk the docks" for a gig. Virtually no captain will hire a deckhand over the internet and pay for them to fly in.
Back Office Sales, Marketing and Logistics Jobs
Then there's staff who work "upstairs" or in the "back office" doing logistics and sales. These folks make sure that the finished product gets from the processing floor to the customer as quickly, easily, and freshly as possible.
Kinsey recently worked for a primary processor called 60 North Seafoods in Cordova in sales. The company is a very new, very small fisherman-owned facility - they typically only had 5 people in the office. However a larger facility that processes seine fish (pink salmon) could have upwards of 30 people in the office.
Unlike jobs on the floor, back office can be year-round work, but it isn't guaranteed. A small plant might shut down seasonally because they do one fish or product. In a big company like Ocean Beauty the salmon back office folks will typically live in Seattle or Oregon the rest of the year and do work to prepare for the season.
More of these jobs require a college degree than the processing floor, but if you have experience in fishing or know the industry well that can help where education is lacking.
In Kinsey’s sales job she took orders from restaurants in the lower 48 and did some "business development" AKA cold-calling. However, unlike a lot of sales jobs it wasn't a hard sell because wild-caught Alaskan seafood is something these restaurants typically really want. Most of the time, she says, customers found her. Her clients ranged anywhere from small retailers like farmers market stands to larger restaurants all the way up to big wholesalers who distribute to their own network of restaurants.
How many of these jobs are available?
Across Alaska salmon processing and marketing jobs number in the thousands each summer.
Cordova is arguably the largest salmon processing hub in Prince William Sound. For an idea of scale it has about 2000 people who live in the town year-round, but that number probably doubles in the summer. A large number of that influx of people are fishermen and service workers, but there are hundreds of people that work at the two major processing plants and the two smaller ones.
Beyond Cordova there are fish processors in other Prince William Sound towns like Valdez and Whittier, and even more all over Southeast, Southcentral, and Western Alaska in the summer. Most fish that leave the water need to be processed quickly and locally. Some serve commercial fishermen exclusively, some process fish independently for tourists and locals, and some do a mix.
Fisherman vs Processor
While fisherman and processor are both common jobs in the seafood industry, fisherman is usually a more desirable position and more difficult to get. On good seasons the "crew share" on a boat can be a significant amount of money and they get to be outdoors and, in my opinion, doing a more interesting job.
That said, processing has some real benefits. It's not as dangerous as fishing. If you want to ultimately become a fisherman it's a great way to get your foot in the door in the seafood industry and you can network with locals over the course of a summer season to land a job as a deckhand. The pay is steadier (although still dependent on fish coming into the plant) and it can be the start of a full-time career in an office if that's your end goal.
And if you have experience in sales and logistics it could be a great way to land a dream summer job in an Alaskan town where you don't have to handle fish all day.
Alaska seafood is a growing industry. Wild seafood is healthy and delicious, and is riding the wave of a lot of popular trends in food such as health and sustainability. Marketing the product is easy - it markets itself.
If you want to try your hand at working in Alaska, or you already work here and want to try something new, consider working for a salmon processor this summer!
If you want to chat or see these interviews live, email Alex at TheAlaskaShow@gmail.com or follow us on Instagram @AlaskaShow