It’s hard not to marvel at the organization of the Alaska seafood business, which maintains a reliably healthy fishery while pumping billions of dollars into the national economy every year. It begins with rigorous resource management by the state and ends with an elaborate, private, global distribution system. Smack in the middle sits the seafood processors, who must be ready to run at full capacity the moment the fish is unloaded. If not, the entire micro-economy can snag up. Fishermen lose income, the stores they buy from lose sales, local governments lose tax revenue. On the other end, seafood distributors sell less, and consumers face higher prices.
“The fish don’t stop for anyone. They just keep going up the river,” says Brad Wilkins, general manager of Alaska General Seafoods (AGS), which operates two processing plants in rural Alaska. If processors are short of workers, “Then you have to put the fishermen on limits, and they have to throttle back.”
To guard against such losses, processors spend months recruiting workers willing to relocate for a short season of long hours. At AGS, it takes six full-time human resources officers a full three months to fill about 520 open jobs, which include fish processors but also housekeepers, carpenters, and kitchen and other site-maintenance staff. One HR person’s entire job is to call each hire once a week to ensure they still plan to come. “About three years ago we had about 100 people no-show on us,” says Wilkins. “We have to take the bull by the horn and just pester these people.” Alaska processors, he notes, even have an advantage over many Lower 48 seafood processors. The state serves as a romantic draw, and fishermen sometimes post ads for new crew members nearby.
Finding enough “slime line” workers to clean, cut, and pack fish has long been a challenge for processors, who have often relied on a visa program to hire seasonal foreign workers. The job is repetitive and grueling, with up to 18-hour shifts in cold, wet, slimy, and smelly conditions. That’s why AGS prides itself on successfully filling the jobs with U.S. residents. Its 25 to 30 year-round positions are all held by U.S.-born workers. Of its 925 seasonal positions (many workers return for another season), about half are filled with U.S.-born workers and half with foreign-born permanent residents.
Yet despite the company’s best efforts, there remains one job it has been unable to fill with American workers: That of salmon roe technician. In Alaska, salmon roe technicians, or roe processors, sort and grade salmon eggs for Japanese buyers. The product has a high commercial value, but only if it is processed on site by people with an intimate understanding of the flavor, taste, and texture prized by Japanese consumers.
“The Japanese customers are so particular that if you don’t prepare it to their specifications, they’re not going to buy it,” Wilkins says. The technicians’ expertise includes the ability to adjust the processing variables of each egg skien based on the salmon’s post-mortem age and which river system it originated from.
It would be the difference between probably $2.5 million in revenue and a couple hundred thousand dollars.
“American citizens lack the skills that these Japanese roe technicians have,” Wilkins says. Numerous attempts have been made to train U.S. workers for the job, with little success. “It just hasn’t stuck because it’s a seasonal job, and people can’t make a living if they only do this for five or six weeks in Alaska.” The Japanese roe experts, by contrast, travel the world taking seasonal processing jobs.
As a result, AGS has no choice but to use the federal government’s H-2B visa program to hire Japanese roe technicians. This year, AGS requested visas for 24 foreign roe technicians, who also oversee 20 American workers in what’s called the egg house. But that’s where the system finally hit a kink, one that almost cost the company $2 million. Due to an administrative delay by the federal government, the workers almost didn’t arrive on time. Workers were supposed to begin setting up on June 10, but by June 13th only two had arrived. “It was really cut close,” Wilkins says. “If they would have showed up a week later, and the fishery was going full swing, we would have been in big trouble.”
The federal government needs a streamlined, efficient immigration system to ensure that all seafood processors can receive the temporary foreign workers they need on time. Had the technicians not arrived, the egg skiens would have been frozen together, “good quality mixed with poor,” and sold for a “much lower value,” says Wilkins. “It would be the difference between probably $2.5 million in revenue and a couple hundred thousand dollars,” he says. “And if you take all the processors in Bristol Bay that couldn’t process the roe, It could be 24, 25 million dollars.” Alaska sells about $125 million of salmon roe annually to the Japanese, its largest buyer ahead of China and Russia.
For a single company, like AGS, losing more than 90 percent of its roe revenue because its Japanese technicians arrived late “would be devastating,” Wilkins says. It would also force the company to raise the price of its canned and frozen salmon, since it currently uses revenue from its international roe sales as a credit against those products. “The skills that a salmon roe technician acquires are not something that can be learned from a book,” he says.