by Marion Nestle
Jun 19 2010

Alaska fishing politics: fish processing

I’m writing this while on an Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute press trip (see note at end).  We are at Sand Point, Popof Island, Shumagin Islands, Alaska, about halfway out the mainland part of the Aleutian archipelago.  Sand Point is the largest town around, population 800 to 1000.

The town has a grocery store, coffee shop, bar, cafe, and a Chinese restaurant (the Aleut China), but centers around a seafood processing plant run by Seattle-based Trident Seafoods.

The fish arrive at the plant from “tenders,” fishing boats that collect fish caught by other boats, weigh the fish, and store them in ice cold sea water until they reach the plant.

Workers at the plant eviscerate the fish, clean them, and cut them into clean fillets.  These will go to Costco and Sams’ Clubs (Walmart) in the lower 48.

Trimming Halibut, Trident plant, Sand Point, AK, 6-18-10

The men and women doing this work are mostly seasonal workers from the Philippines.  They work 12 to 16 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week.

Several people who have lived here all their lives told us that when they were kids, they could hardly wait until they were 16 so they could work in the cannery.  They made good money.

When Trident came in, the company lowered the wages to minimum or just above, discouraged locals from working there, and outsourced the labor.

The company also reduced the price it paid for fish  from just over $2 per pound in the late 1980s to today’s just over $1.

If I remember correctly, wild Alaskan salmon costs nearly $30 per pound in New York City grocery stores.

The fishermen aren’t getting much of that.  The people who work in the processing plant aren’t either.

We met people here who are trying to help the fishers get more money for their work.  We haven’t met anyone lobbying for higher wages for workers in the processing plant.

The rationale?  Fish come in seasonally when they can be caught.  They have to be processed as soon as they come in.  If the workers were paid more, the wild fish would be so expensive that nobody could afford to buy them (and everyone would turn to farmed salmon).

I will be thinking about all this the next time I’m in a Costco or read about recommendations in the dietary guidelines to eat more fish.

I needed five chapters to talk about issues related to fish in What to Eat. I will have more to say about Alaskan fish politics in the next two posts.  Stay tuned.

Note: the Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute is a trade association paid for by seafood processors::

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) was created over twenty years ago as a cooperative partnership between the Alaska seafood industry and state government to advance the mutually beneficial goal of a stable seafood industry in Alaska. It is Alaska’s “official seafood marketing agency”, and is established under state law as a public corporation…[It] is divided into three distinct marketing programs: international, foodservice and retail. All three programs are designed to enhance the appeal and popularity of Alaska Seafood. The international program operates in the European Union, China, and Japan, while the retail and foodservice programs conduct their activities in the U.S.

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  • I teach/volunteer at a locla high school and local health food store and I am now always mentioning about lobbyists and what it is they do for us. Oh yeah…not a darned thing.

  • Sadly, this is how almost all big corporations operate. Exploit cheap, third-world labor. If one group of laborers gets too expensive, the corporation moves elsewhere and finds more desperate ones.

  • Anita Figueras

    I’ve been thinking hard about the complex issues surrounding fish as food for quite some time. You illustrate beautifully here the hidden costs of cheap food. I’m thinking that fish is a food that should be very expensive to capture its true costs.

  • A Tea Enthusiast

    I’ve wondered why the salmon at my local Costco seemed such a good deal. Now I know, sadly enough, that one of the hidden costs is the exploitation of “seasonal workers.”

    Hello, Costco? People are people. If you don’t care enough about the “locals” to encourage their employment and pay decent wages then I’m not buying your salmon anymore. Not one bit of it.

  • Subvert

    At least they still process something in AK… The cheaper option, and what is done quite a bit more than the mainstream is aware of, is to ship Pacific caught seafood off to Asian countries, where rock bottom labor and packaging can be leveraged. The products are then shipped back to be sold in retail packages in the US with AK-harvested/origin labels on it. This practice is very effective for increasing margins on breaded or other “value-added” items where lots labor are needed. In the US, you would see automation and technology being employed to run quantities of seafood down a processing line, but in Asia, large factories are packed with humans employing thousands of hands to prep your frozen Costco and Slum’s Club ‘I’m-too-lazy-to-clean-and-cook-my-own’ seafood.

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  • Etta

    This is a disturbing trend in employment techniques, which exemplifies a larger pattern occurring across the nation.

    Possibly worse, for the fishing industry, is the declining number of fish running back into the rivers each year. Commercial fishing licenses cost so much more money as compared to sports or subsistence fishing licenses. Therefore, commercial fishers have far more pull with Fish and Game than other smaller concerns. Fewer fish return to spawn, as commercial fishing outfits are far more efficient at removing fish from the river than individuals and families. Depleted runs will continue, as will later and later runs (A result of King season, for example, closing and the majority of spawning fish doing so after the close of season. Their offspring hatch later and therefore return later.).

  • Been there

    Worked up there 3 times in my life. Good way to pay for college as long as you are strong and healthy. We were paid about min wage. However we worked 12 hr days, 7 days a week to start with. Then if we were really busy there was mandatory overlap which translated into 15 to 18 hour days.

    Our room and board were paid for and they cooked our meals and washed our clothes. Bunk houses were pretty run down. Plumbing from shower on one floor leaked into shower on the floor below and was never fixed in the 7 months I spent there.

    So we ate, worked, and slept, all on company property. Meals were good and abundant if not rushed. Fruits and Veggies somewhat lacking. Ate baked salmon for lunch everyday for a summer. This was my choice as there were other options.

    Some locations had occasional downtime but that only happened at Sand Point. They still fed you and did your laundry and we had time to explore the island, borrow books from the school or even shop at the general store. However we were on call so If we saw a boat headed in we ran back. For the most part, we had no transportation except our own two feet.

    Some workers came from Latin America, Philippines, US, and even as far as Hungary. Many workers from Wash, Oregon and California as well.

    They don’t tell you about all the processes involved. Cod are candled for worms which are picked out by hand with large tweezers.

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