College students help keep Bristol Bay sockeye top tier

Maddie Vancuren looks over her paperwork between inspections. (Photo by Mitch Borden/KDLG)

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.

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

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

Vancuren is doing this because she’s one of the many quality control technicians — or QCs — 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 20s.

Maddie Vancuren unloads sockeye from a brailer. (Photo by Mitch Borden/KDLG)

Currently, Vancuren is 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.

“Bled? RSW? Floating?” Vancuren called out.

Then Vancuren examined a sample of the boat’s catch to see 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, then admired the fishermen’s work.

“They are doing a really good job,” Vancuren said.

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

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

Mark Buckley said a lot of money is spent on getting the highest quality of salmon in Bristol Bay. Buckley is the founder and owner of Digital Observer, the company that employs the majority of the QC’s in the region.

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

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,” Buckley said. “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.

Brailer being lifted from a fishing boat.
(Photo by Mitch Borden/KDLG)

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

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

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

“Well you know I’m a long time Alaska Fishermen myself. I fished here in the bay for 22 years,” Buckley said. “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,” Buckley said. “It’s all because they want the extra money.”

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

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

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