PETERSBURG, AK <p>A large chum salmon bounces as it drops onto a rapidly moving conveyer belt inside the Icicle Seafoods processing plant. A worker grasps the slippery fish by the tail and quickly beheads it. The salmon body continues down the line to another worker dressed in full yellow rubber. It’s almost as wet inside the grey building as outside beneath the grey skies. Icicle Seafoods plant manager Patrick Wilson explains the process. </p>
<p> “So what they’re doing here is splitting the bellies open, cutting the head off, that shaft that comes out loosens the guts, up by where the head was cut off. Then they go through the cleaning stations here, the fish cleaner. Here when the guts come out, it passes over here, these people take out the eggs, we save the eggs, this waste here goes to the meal plant.” </p>
<p>The company has a full roster of more than 600 employees this summer, up from around 300 last summer. Roughly 100 of those are local and the rest come from all over the United States, mostly the West Coast. Wilson says the number of returning employees is up this summer, at nearly one-third. </p>
<p>James Patterson just started his first season at Icicle, working in the freezer. </p>
<p> “It’s a lot of pushing heavy carts of fish. And it’s about, from what I understand, about 10 degrees in the freezer. The carts we push weigh about 1000 pounds. So it’s pretty hardcore.” </p>
<p>Patterson says he was unemployed in California for a year and is happy to have a job, even at Alaska’s minimum wage. </p>
<p> “I only get like $7.75 an hour, so it’s kind of chump change. But it’s better than being unemployed, I guess.” </p>
<p>Trident Seafoods plant manager Dave Ohmer says most processing workers put in significant overtime at time-and-a-half pay. </p>
<p> “In this business, the only way for people who are away from their homes to make a decent amount of money is to put in a lot of hours. And so yeah, in the peak of the season, 12-14 hours consistently a day is definitely available.” </p>
<p>Working 14 hours, a first year employee can make $132 a day before taxes. Patterson is already putting in long hours. </p>
<p> “Monday, Tuesday, and so far today I’ve got 33.25 hours.” </p>
<p>He says he is hoping to make at least four thousand dollars this summer. </p>
<p> “Basically all this is to pay off credit card debt. I owe quite a bit. I’m not going to have anything when it’s done, I’m just going to be able to get back down to zero, really.” </p>
<p>Most workers live in bunkhouses owned by the processors. I joined some of them for dinner at the Trident Seafoods cookhouse one evening. A game of “safety bingo” is in progress when I walk in. </p>
<p> (bingo sounds) </p>
<p>Every worker gets a bingo card and every day there are no reported injuries, a number is drawn. Bingo earns a jacket… Anyone with a blackout wins cash. </p>
<p> (bingo sounds) </p>
<p>The minute bingo ends, everyone dedicates themselves to shoveling food before the end of the 30 minute dinner break. A group of teenagers from Washington State talk to me as they eat. They found their jobs through a former teacher. </p>
<p> “Her husband works for Trident, so she just asked if we want to go to Alaska for the summer. And we said yeah, so we all came.” </p>
<p>Some of them say that after a week of work they are already reconsidering their future plans. </p>
<p> “Person 1: Not work in a cannery. Person 2: Thinking about actually going to college now, so I don’t have to do work like this. Person 3: Just kidding, I like it.” </p>
<p>Another table of workers say they have been rotating seasonally between fish processing and farm work in California for more than five years. </p>
<p> “Es parte para el dinero y parte corriendo del calor.” </p>
<p>That worker says he and his companions come partly for the money and partly to escape the heat. </p>
<p>Trident manager Dave Ohmer says the Petersburg plant has almost an 80% return rate for workers this year. The season is off to a good start, according to Ohmer. </p>
<p> “People are making enough money that it’s worth being here.” </p>
<p>Workers only get paid while they are processing, so the more fish, the more they work. Ohmer says expectations for this season are high and he hopes the fish deliver. </p>
<p> “We’re all hoping that by the time we get to September the volume of fish will come through. In general the demand for salmon is still good worldwide and with volume, it should be a good year for Petersburg.” </p>
<p>Icicle and Trident employ a total of 650 workers between the two of them. The other large processor in town, Ocean Beauty, employs roughly another 200. Ocean Beauty did not return calls for comment. </p>