The Alaskan system for doing this works fairly well but is under constant pressure. Commercial fishers want to be able to catch all the salmon they can with no restrictions. Communities that have always depended on salmon for sustenance want to be able to continue doing so, and do not want fish caught before they get to community spawning streams. Hence: salmon politics.
Here are some thoughts about what I observed:
Labor conditions in the processing plants: Workers are imported from the Philippines or Eastern Europe, and work 12- to 16-hour days, six or seven days a week, for months at a time.
The amount of hand labor involved: Fishermen haul nets and sort fish by hand, and processing plant workers remove heads and guts, fillet fish, trip fillets, and debone by hand. In canneries, they weigh cans and clean the contents by hand. Some of this work is highly skilled and so meticulously done that it qualifies as artisanal. All of it is hard and repetitive.
The huge numbers of fish that can be caught by commercial fishers: Alaska regulates how fish can be caught (boat size, types of nets), but even so a purse seine picks up thousands of pounds of fish at one time. It is hard to imagine how such fisheries can be sustainable, even when tightly regulated.
The waste in the system: Some plants had arrangements to supply fish heads, guts, backbones, belly fat, skin, tails, and other parts to be used for pet food or fish meal, but some just ground up the leftovers and flushed them into the water system or back into the ocean. If the wrong fish get into nets, they get tossed back into the sea.
The cold chain (temperature controls): Fish stay fresher longer if they are held at temperatures just above freezing throughout every step of processing. The tenders (collecting boats) do "RSW"—hold fish in a tank filled with Refrigerated Sea Water. High-quality fish are sampled when they arrive at plants to make sure their flesh is below 35 degrees. Two of the three plants we visited were careful with temperature controls. The third, however, allowed fish to sit in holding tanks for days or to remain on stopped processing lines at room temperature while workers went to lunch.
The role of science: Geneticists are madly working on methods to identify salmon by stream of origin as a means to settle arguments about who gets to catch which fish. This, of course, could backfire if the salmon turn out to be from Russia or Canada.
The love of fishermen for what they do: The ones we met love their work and have been doing it for decades. They just wish they got treated better by processors and paid better for the fish they catch.
As fish eaters, we aren't forced to consider where fish comes from. I will be looking at fresh, frozen, and canned salmon in grocery stores and fish markets with new appreciation for what it takes to get it to us.