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College students help keep Bristol Bay sockeye top tier

Mitch Borden

Seafood processors across Bristol Bay in the summer rely mostly on the judgment of college students to determine the caliber of sockeye they're buying from fishermen. KDLG's Mitch Borden spent a day on the salmon tender F/V Muskrat to see what goes into grading these salmon — and keeping fishermen honest. 


Bristol Bay seafood processors pay millions of dollars to fishermen for premium sockeye. But how do companies make sure they’re getting their money's worth? By using mostly college students to keep fishermen honest.

Maddie Vancuren practically dives halfway into a bag filled with hundreds of sockeye. to find the coldest ones in the batch.

After she said, “I will literally have blood in my hair after the end of this, [which] really doesn’t gross me out at all.”

She’s doing this because she’s one of the many quality control technicians -- or QC’s --  hired for the summer to assess the salmon being sold to seafood processors in Bristol Bay. They’re mostly college students or in their early 20’s.


Credit Mitch Borden
Vancuren unloads sockeye from a brailer

Currently, Vancuren’s on a salmon tender checking the sockeye boats are dropping off after a day of fishing near the Naknek River. Whenever a boat pulled up, she greets them with a standard list of questions.


She called out, “Bled?RSW? Floating?”


Then she examined a sample of the boat’s catch to sees if the fish were stored in water if they were bled, and she also checked the salmon’s temperature.


Going through a batch she called out the temps,“39. 38. 37.” Then admired the fishermen’s work, “they are doing a really good job.”



Credit Mitch Borden
Fishing boats line up at the salmon tender the F/V Muskrat to drop off their catch.

If sockeye meet certain standards assessed by QC’s like Vancuren, fishermen can get quality bonuses from the companies they’re selling to.


She said “They [fishermen] kinda look at us like the cops a little bit. Some of them, you know, these people are getting so much money or not by what I’m writing on this piece of paper.”


Credit Mitch Borden
Salmon chilling in refrigerated water.

  Mark Buckley said a lot of money is spent on getting the highest quality of salmon in Bristol Bay.  


“This industry is paying fishermen tens of millions of dollars a year in quality bonuses.”


Buckley is the founder and owner of Digital Observer, the company that employs the majority of the QC’s in the region.  


Historically, Buckley said Bristol Bay processors and fishermen didn’t make it a priority to keep the fish they caught “fresh.” He can attest to that from his own personal experience as a fisherman.


“When I was on the boat and I wanted a fish for dinner I would pull a fish off the top of the brailer. I wouldn’t even reach down a few inches. We’d sell them to the companies but not eat them ourselves.”


For decades, fishermen crammed the sockeye they’d catch into unrefrigerated spaces for hours. Then they’d head to the canneries where the salmon would be stuffed and cooked in cans. But around the early 2000’s things started to change.


The Bristol Bay salmon market began transitioning from canning sockeye to selling fillets. This meant processors needed better meat.  


Buckley explained, “You can’t sell a badly beat up fish as a fillet. It just doesn’t work.”




Credit Mitch Borden
Brailer being lifted from a fishing boat.

So, companies started paying fishermen to chill their fish, in ice or cold water, and bleed them to prevent bruising. These improvements dramatically raised the quality of the fish coming out of Bristol Bay.

To ensure they’re getting their money’s worth, processors use QC’s on their

  tenders to keep fishermen honest, which sometimes can be a bit of a challenge.


Buckley put it this way, “Well you know I’m a long time Alaska Fishermen myself. I fished here in the bay for 22 years. So, I can say this will a fair bit of authority — fishermen lie. We all will stretch the truth on occasion.”


For the most part though, Buckley said most fishermen have adapted well to the changes.


“No one is holding a gun to their head to do these things. It’s all because they want the extra money.”



Credit Mitch Borden
A few of the crew of the salmon tender F/V Muskrat gaze at a rainbow.

Back on the boat, Maddie is finishing up her shift. She says it looks like the fishermen had a good day.

“They had a lot of fish today. People were coming in with 18 - 20 brailers. So popping day.”


With that, she’s done with work until more boats begin to line up with their hulls hopefully packed with pristine Bristol Bay sockeye.