Many fishermen in Bristol Bay dream of packing and selling their own fish, but challenges. One four-year-old startup in Naknek shows how those challenges can be overcome with some grit, humor, and attention to detail.
Amanda Wlaysewski will admit: she’s a bit of a fish snob. When a salmon comes across her table at Nakeen Homepack, she makes sure it is coddled every step of the way.
“We’re always looking for ways to not touch that fish,” she says. “We changed our processing line so that instead of handing it across three times, everyone’s adjacent to eac hother, so instead of having to reach across the table, he just slides it across… those might seem a little fussy, but it makes a huge difference.”
Wlaysewski admits she might be a little over-sensitive. But she says, when you see thousands of fish go into fillets, you notice all the little bumps and bruises that can be prevented with a little TLC.
“Because that same exact fish that came off the boat and maybe wasn’t kept at temperature… could’ve been the same fish that comes through like the ones you saw today – all their scales, bright and shiny – perfect! They’re perfect.”
She’s referring to a load of subsistence salmon she picked up from the beach earlier that day.
“Do you have the weight on those? – about 295…”
In the calm before the storm of commercial fishing, Wlaysewski is breaking in a mostly new crew.
One of her experienced hands, Shoshana Wilhite, is helping train the five newcomers…
“Yeah! They’ve actually picked it up fast this year, so I’m impressed,” she says.
And we’ve been so slow but we’ve been getting some practice – we’ve gradually gotten more fish every day, so it’s been good.”
The nine-person crew can do about 500 pounds per hour, so it takes them about 40 minutes to get this delivery cut, vac-packed and into the freezer.
While they’re cleaning their equipment, a truck pulls up in front. It’s bringing another load of fish to cut, as well as a gift for Wlaysewski.
“This is a local lady here – she’s donating her dog for the summer so we have a beardog. We have bears and fox and when they catch a whiff of salmon, we’ll have ‘em all season…so I hadda have a new hire. — I guess his name is Gem. G-E-M, Gem. This’ll be his interview, Pam, see if I wanna hire him!”
Pam Riddle has been bringing her subsistence fish to Wlaysewski for four years now. Riddle does a lot of processing herself – canning, smoking, salting… but when she wants frozen fillets to ship out of state, she leaves it to Nakeen Homepack.
“I don’t have the facilities she does. And I send it to Washington for my daughter. And this makes it really easy – all I do is just bring her my fish. And Amanda’s good people, really good people.”
This is how Wlaysewski likes to do business – by word of mouth, with friendly fishermen that come back year after year.
And she said, when they’re giving fillets to relative or selling them at farmer’s markets, fishermen start to pay more attention to how they treat their fish, too.
“And then the next year when they come back they’re really tapped into that. They wanna know – oh how’s the fish looking? Oh, we bled all of these! Or oh, I went to this class this winter on processing or bleeding… and it’s really cool to see them put the education into it and understand the difference.”
Of course, as every processor big or small discovers, there are challenges to starting a business in Bristol Bay. Wla says it can be hard to get a mechanic during fishing season, it’s complicated to ship up supplies and expensive to buy them locally.
“It’s kind of a thing where looking back, if you knew what it was gonna be like you would be too intimidated – or I personally would be too intimidated to do it. So it’s best to not know what’s up ahead. Just go for it… and by the grace of God you make it to the end of the season, everybody gets paid, and all the fish are well taken care of, and you’re done.”
Wlaysewski says by the end of July, she’d be happy to never see another fish again. But the feeling washes off quickly, like slime from Xtratufs. And when May rolls around again, she can’t wait to get back to cut fish again.