Stories of Seafood Processing: Workers Who Add Value

By Suzanne Portello

A Job for the Young?

Juvencio Garcia, SPC worker, loads bait onto the F/V Endurance. Photo by Suzanne Portello.

Some folks get their start in seafood processing at a tender age. Now a policy engagement director for the Sitka Conservation Society, Katie Riley worked in the Packing Room at Sitka Sound Seafoods (SSS) for two summers at age 18. She started by printing labels that gave the weight, price, etc., to go on 50# boxes of frozen fish heading south – her title was “Labeler.” The second year she became “Labeler & Expediter.” This was in 2011, between college terms, says Katie – the “heyday of the J-1 Visa Program” when college students from all over the world came to work in Alaska. Katie keeps some of those friends to this day.

“It was a male-dominated environment,” she says, and “the coolest thing was ‘breaking the racks’ and testing my strength. The racks were 5’ x 5’ plastic sheets in metal frames where you would lay the fish and they would go up high into the blast freezer.” Katie acts out the procedure in her current office. “Later, you’d take the racks out of the freezer and slam them down, and maybe if you were lucky, they’d break apart.”

The Crazy Eighties

Katie is following a family tradition – her dad Tim Riley worked at SSS from 1987 to 2000. Moving to Sitka in 1986 from Iowa via Washington state, his first job was as a docent at the Isabel Miller Museum. SSS hired him “in the middle of winter, to help with inventory – counting boxes & labels…” He progressed into processing bait herring, Tanner crab and roe herring. The commercial herring fishery was focused on harvesting herring eggs, or roe, for marketing in Japan.

Katie Riley, in her office at SCS, 2020. Photo by Suzanne Portello.

Tim worked on “the frozen end” of fish processing – moving racks of fish, boxing and weighing the boxes. Tim also describes “breaking the racks” – “at that time, steel trays – heavy and LOUD when you pulled them out of the freezer and slammed them down to break the fish loose.”

In 1994, Tim became the “Foreman of the Packing Room.” Those days, he came into work early – 4:15am. Over a year he would average about 3,000 hours (a normal 40-hour work week would yield 2,000 hours per year). But the cycle of the year was irregular – 40-hour weeks for half the year, 100-hour weeks at the height of the season, with a month-long-ish break in Nov.-Dec.

Shortly after, the fishing world would undergo “a tectonic shift” with the introduction in 1995 of IFQs (individual fishing quotas). Fish-catching and processing were no longer subject to the influences of compressed openings and derby-style fisheries. It was a time of enormous change – more safety precautions, growing computer use and practical & tech advances in all facets of the work.

Two Sitka Sound Seafood employees carry a rack of frozen fish. © Jana M. Suchy 1980s

Management proved a challenge for Tim. He managed 35-50 people at a time, some “on the edge – people you had to bail out of jail so they could come to work” – and others “smart, educated like a student physicist who worked at the Fermilab or professor at the local college.” Tim worked hard and expected his workers to, as well. “I was merciless, and there was the fact that the work you were asking people to do (might) hurt them.” The move toward greater safety precautions was partly financial – they were “motivated to make sure we were safe because of rising insurance costs.”

The progression from hard worker to hard-working manager seems common in the fish-processing world. Seafood Producers Coop (SPC) Plant Manager Ruben Torres has been with the company for 28 years. He started out “on the line, just like everybody.” He worked in the icehouse, was a mechanic for the fillet machine and a fillet supervisor. As manager, at the height of the season he can work from 5am-7pm. His most memorable challenge? “Processing roe herring was hard – 2pm to 6am or 10am the next day.” His greatest reward? “It’s been good to be with the same company all this time – they’re like a family – 70% of our workforce is local – there are 30 returning employees this Spring.”

The Iceman Cometh

Another long timer with SPC is “Iceman” Don Koston. 2020 will be his 27th summer.

Don was seriously busy on the dock. He and co-worker Juvencio Garcia were loading bait onto the F/V Endurance. Using a mechanized hoist, they offloaded a 3400 lb. pallet with frozen bait and salt. Hail was falling and it was bitter cold, even in Don’s tiny dock office (room for a kitchen chair and small shelf where Don’s computer showed the vessels expected each day).

SPC “Iceman” & Dock Manager Don Koston. Photo by Suzanne Portello.

While Don is “universally referred to as the Iceman” his official title is “Dock Manager.” He used to work year-round, but now winters are slow. He’s off for part of November-December, then starts up again in January. Most of his work is out on the dock. “I supply ice and bait to the fleet and coordinate unloading (of boats).” Nowadays, he uses a computer to track all this (before, everything was on paper). SPC deals with a couple hundred different boats during the main trolling season.

Hard Work is a Source of Pride

One person who worked with Don at SPC “back in the day” was Sitkan Nathan Bernhardt. Nathan worked in seafood for 26 years, starting in the late ‘80s, through all of the 90s, up to 2009. He describes himself with pride as “a hard worker” and describes many roles over the years. Unloader, grader, processor. “I’d unload fish from a boat and grade it by weight and condition.” The fish house “slime line” would clean the halibut, black cod, rockfish, and “certain people who could handle a knife were filleters. A lot of the slime line were women between 30 and 60, like (longtime Sitkan) Margaret Gordon, and they were really good. They could clean a fish like there was no tomorrow.”

Nathan explained how the work changed. “First there were openings and derbies; later, there were IFQs. In the late 90s, they also came in with lots of new machines. We got a whole new building, just for filleting salmon. My first day I went home smiling because I like working hard…even though it was long hours with ice and water running down your back, standing in ice and water – you were always cold. But it was very social, like a family, with lots of camaraderie.”

“They used to call me ‘Kid’ since I was 19 when I started.” Bernhardt worked under the grader Reg Mork from Pelican; the “Kid” recalls a dream he once had about the older man. “(In my dream) Reg was standing down at Crescent Harbor, looking up at the stars…He wouldn’t look at me, and then when I stuck my face up close in his, he turned into a bear.”

Hands-on Management – Versatile and Flexible

Dock Supervisor Adela Uddipa has been at SSS almost 20 years. Her job and personality are so pivotal to the smooth functioning of things on the dock that she’s interrupted and called out on her VHF multiple times during the interview. Her office is the “Scale Shack” where a stream of workers and skippers stop by to consult her. One who stopped by but never sat down was Adela’s husband Junior – he was too busy transporting loaded pallets on a forklift.

Pedro Rieta & Mary Durgan on the Slime Line at SSS. © Jana M. Suchy 1980s

SSS Production Supervisor Gordon Grant has done seafood work since he was 8 years old. “I got my first official paycheck in 1975, doing piecework – popping herring eggs at PFI” (Petersburg Fisheries/Icicle Seafoods, which bills itself as the oldest operating seafood plant in Alaska…continuously since 1899). The young Gordon made $19.36 in a half hour.  He started at SSS in 1976 (at age 9), when his family came over to Sitka “to “help Tommy Thompson take over the company…My father, my mother (downstairs as office manager), my brother and my sister.”

Gordon does (or has done) a little bit of everything: “piece worker, grounds & buildings (emptying wastebaskets), crab processing & cooking, grading fish, driving a forklift, operating a hoist, heading halibut, machine operator, warehouseman and fabricator in the welding shop.”

The need for versatility is even more important with Sitka’s smaller processors, like Sitka Salmon Shares.  June, July, August at the Smith St. plant, Production Lead Ken James averages 60-65 hours per week, while Yard Manager George Houghton gets up to 80 (half regular hours, half overtime). In addition to seafood processing, both also do maintenance and improvements on the facility. Ken says, “You can’t see a wall in here without seeing something I did. I hung most of the lights in here… I don’t get bored, that’s for sure.”

Follow the Talent

Another worker at SSS who’s done a bit of everything is Fish House Supervisor Dave Thomas. Thomas started in the summer of 1999, “as a tote washer at a place called Alaska Bounty.” The following year, he became a filleter. He started at Sitka Sound in 2001 and has “been here ever since.”

SSS Production Supervisor Gordon Grant & Fish House Supervisor Dave Thomas. Photo by Suzanne Portello.

To some, filleters are looked upon as the “talent” in fish processing. Ken James says, “During the season, I am the lead filleter…I’m at the table, fleshing 4,000 lbs. of fish a day. Most of the time I’m the only filleter. Other people are ribbing, we’ve got 12 people cutting at the table, but I’m getting the whole fish, cutting the filets off…cause that’s my job, teaching everybody what to do, one step to the next. Some guys are really ‘crackerjack’ and I can kind of lean on them to help teach the others. I’m talkin’ 12-16 hours a day.”

“Ken is super talented, George isn’t that talented,” says co-worker Houghton.

When the Sitka Maritime Heritage Society honored “the slime line” in 2019, perhaps the most colorful presentation was Dave Thomas’ filleting demo. When asked to describe his work as Fish House Manager, Dave says he grabs “whatever fish Gordon calls for (fresh, for example)” and cleans them (re-cleans them, as the fishermen do it first) and grades them, making sure they are of good quality. “If I am not doing too much, I like to help with boxing the fresh fish. Then, we have big minus 40-degree blast freezers, nine of them. We load the (fish to be frozen) onto the racks – fillets are laid out a certain way, whole fish are laid out a certain way – and we pack them into the freezer. The faster you freeze something, the better the quality. We’re equipped to do that here.”

“Even the new hires around here learn very quickly to do multiple things. When we hire, it’s not 500 people, we hire 150 people. That’s one thing I like about the job – it is NOT boring in any way.”

When asked about the workforce, Gordon explains, “We’ve had groups of Russians come through, folks from Turkey, Puerto Rico. But we hire locally as much as possible.” He notices a trend over recent years of not having the ability (for summertime local hire) readily available.

Sitka Salmon Shares Production Lead Ken James. Photo by Suzanne Portello.

Asked what’s coming up in the calendar, Gordon says (almost in one breath):  That’ll be IFQs from mid-March through mid-November – the halibut and black cod fisheries – and then the spring king salmon fishery. Shortly after, we’ll get into Dungeness crab. There’ll be a little bit of shrimp, then gillnet will start up, then come July 1st we’ll get into seine fish. Throughout this, the IFQ fishery continues (includes hook-&-line and pot fishery). The seine/gillnet fishery dies off about mid-Sept. Through that time there’s also jig fishing for ling cod; troll-caught salmon; directed pelagic fishery (rockfish). In October we get into sea cucumber, then back into Dungeness for the fall opening. We also do a little bit of bait herring fishery in January.

Like a Family – One Way and Another

What Don Koston likes most about his job at SPC is “what my job has created, which is a lot of long-term relationships with fishing families. It took me a couple of years to memorize the first name, last name and boat name of all the skippers and crews. Then, there’s the pleasure of watching the kids grow up.”

Dave Thomas remembers “lots of good stories involving Dungeness because that’s always fun, very energetic and like to pinch you.” But mostly he remembers the people. “Being from Sitka, I never got out and saw the world when I was younger, but I got to experience the world through all these people from Turkey, Eastern Europe, Russia. I met my wife here – she’s Russian – she was one of the last J-1s on a work Visa.”

Ken James talks about “the sense of pride in where I work, who I work for and the product we put out. I’ve kind of taken a sense of ownership in this place. A lot of times you don’t have hands-on with your owners. Marsh Skeel is local boy, one of the co-founders. These guys are hands-on. (At other places) you don’t usually see (upper management) getting their hands dirty cutting fish down on the table.”

Co-worker George Houghton says he wants to “Have FUN in my work – that’s why I am here.”