Working as the Head Processor

When I first got hired at Alaska Premier Charters, Inc. as the head processor I didn’t know what to expect or how it would go. When I arrived it was a totally different world than cutting grass on a golf course. The first day of work was a whirlwind. The head processing job entailed many different responsibilities, all new to me.

The main duties involve boxing fish in the morning and processing all the fish when the boats come in, in the afternoon. It also involves making client fish boxes, labeling fish bags for the different species and making sure the clients’ fish gets processed the way they want it done. I had to learn the ins and outs of the processing room which include how to keep different parties of fish separated, how to fillet salmon, rock fishes, and lingcod, and skin halibut fillets. (I first had to learn how to look at a fillet and identify which species that fillet belonged to.) Finally, I had to learn how to weigh the finished product and make sure the weights are right for each party so they know how much fish they’re taking home.

The filleting part for me was the easiest to grasp, but the first king salmon I filleted was a complete disaster. I couldn’t feel the backbone or spine and I was going under the rib bones. When I was done, it looked like a sea lion almost ripped it to shreds. It took me at least 5 minutes to finish, and the second-year deckhands were filleting them in 30 seconds…I couldn’t believe it! After a few days of filleting, though, I got the feel and my fillets were turning out a lot better; eventually I was showing up the 2nd year deckhands.

The processor starts filleting a king salmon.

The processor starts filleting a king salmon.

The routine for processing is simple. First, a boat will call in on the VHF radio, and I take the van to go pick up the fish at the drive down ramp. With the help of other processors and deckhands, I load all the lunch coolers, fillet totes, and fish coolers (sometimes heavy) into the van. Often, a creel survey person from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is there to measure king salmon, lingcod, rockfishes or take scale samples from king salmon. The coolers and totes come up with tags which tell me what party they belong to and how they want their fish processed. When we process the fish, we start with a party’s red meat (salmon) and end with their white meat (halibut/rockfishes). The next red meat starts a new party, and this is how we keep the fish separated between the different parties.

The processors and deckhands work together to get all the fish filleted, vacuum packed, racked, and frozen each day.

The processors and deckhands work together to get all the fish filleted, vacuum packed, racked, and frozen each day.

After filleting, the fish get cut into one pound pieces, rinsed off, bagged, vacuum packed, and then put on trays, which are racked, weighed, and put into a flash freezer. When processing is done, all the tables, vac pac machines, knives, baskets, coolers and totes need to be cleaned and sanitized and the floor needs to be sprayed and clean. Usually, the last deckhand up to the PR is the designated totes/coolers cleaner, the worst job! Trust me, everyone will tell them if they’re the last deckhand up.

In the morning I have to derack the trays of fish from the previous day and make sure the fish gets distributed evenly amongst each particular party. When I get done boxing the different parties, I have to write the number of boxes and the weight of the boxes for each party on a fish sheet. Typically they all weigh the same amongst the individuals in each party, since the fish are shared evenly. I also need to make sure to include the weights to any misc. items a client wants to put in their box on the fish sheet so we can include the weight to their catch. After deracking, the trays need to be sanitized, and I need to make more tags for each party, preparing for when they get back from fishing in the afternoon.

Fish on racks, ready to be put in the freezer.

Fish on racks, ready to be put in the freezer.

The night before clients leave is called an exit night. We meet with them that evening so they know how many boxes of fish they are taking home the next day. We take the fish that they caught their last day and add it to the fish that is already boxed from the previous days to figure out how many boxes they are taking home and the weights of each box.

A full fsh box weighs 50 pounds, and can be brought as checked luggage on your flight home.

The following morning I get up extra early to finish boxing all the fish. Then I take their boxed fish and meet them at the airport so they can bring it on their flight home. If they live in the Midwest, on the east coast, or have a long flight schedule, I put foil insulated liners in their boxes so their fish will still be frozen when they get home.

As head processor, I have other miscellaneous duties as well. I have to take inventory of all the processing supplies we use and make sure we have supplies at all times so there are no delays while processing. I also have to keep track of the bait supply for the deckhands. Usually, I will run to the cold storage to get tray pack herring for salmon fishing, bag and vacuum pack salted horse herring, and box pink salmon for halibut bait. The freezers also need to be kept organized and clean, the vac pac machines need to be deep cleaned every other day, the oil and filters need to be changed once a month, and the area around the processing room needs to be kept neat. The lodge recycling needs to be taken care of every day. Weekly, there is lunch meat to vac pac for the boat lunches, and frozen goods from the food order to move for the chef to his freezer. If I have any downtime there is usually maintenance or additional cleaning to do. With the help of my assistant processor(s), we get it all done.

~ Written by Kent, Head Processor

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