But the locals work endless hours during fishing season, too: that's how it is. Austin Roof, who works in quality control for Aleutia, the nonprofit consortium of fishing families who get a higher price for carefully treated fish, walked with us on the processing line at Trident, watching the handling of fish that Aleutia would buy. Like Marion, I was astonished by the amount of hand-cutting, "candling" the filleted fish to check for worms with light tables from below, and general care by workers that goes into fish that will be sold at chains like Costco—all the fish we saw, not just fish for Aleutia.
As it happened, I'd just met Roof at the local (and only) coffee shop and general meeting place, Cut'r Loose, asking when it would open the next morning; he and his new wife, Cheryl, who also works for Aleutia, took over the shop last year, when they moved to Sand Point. The next morning I did get to the shop at seven, still on East Coast time. Roof turned up at eight. A boat had come in at three, he said, and he got the call to come in. Now he would put in a full day at the shop, which serves exceptionally good coffee: Roof worked at a California coffee roaster near the Oregon border, and is a tea enthusiast too. Then he would go back to the plant for the evening's fish landings.
In the boat, it was easy to see why quality-control inspectors like the Roofs would be necessary. Purse seine nets, the kind we saw, collect fish in a ball-shaped mass when fishermen mechanically hoist them into their boats. Fish will inevitably be bruised and worse. Gill or "setnets," which catch fish by the snout, usually result in less damage, because the fishermen take them out one by one, but they also require more work. In tenders and at delivery, the fish can be thrown into tubs and on scales (we saw both), further damaging them. Aleutia rejects bruised fish and fish with broken bones, and ones with too few scales; its quality-control workers take the internal temperature of the flesh, to be sure that the refrigerated sea water was cold enough to keep it around 44 F. Aleutia requires fishermen to "pull"—tear out—the gills as soon as fish are hauled up, for quick bleeding. (We asked how long it otherwise took fish to die, of asphyxiation. No one on the boat, including several fishermen, could answer, but they all grimaced.) When we visited, the going rate for sockeye was $1.00 to $1.10 a pound; Aleutia guaranteed fishermen $1.18.
Bycatch—the other kinds of fish that turn up in nets—suffers a worse fate: it's thrown back, as we saw happen with cod as the tender made its rounds picking up salmon from various boats. And, oddly to us, we were the recipients of numerous gorgeous king salmon, which the fishing boats didn't want to bother bringing to the plant: they were too small for the usual market but too big for the processing plants, which are geared in both human and mechanical labor to bone and cut the smaller sockeye. "In Cordova they pay five to six dollars a pound for king," Barnett said. "Here they pay like a dollar."
Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute
The gorgeous kings did not go to waste. Hardly! (And fishermen usually take them home and freeze them for the winter.) The high point of a glorious waterborne day was watching the joy, energy, and expertise Michael Cimarusti brought to cutting one fish after another. We'd all gotten a sense of this when we visited the Trident plant and watched him come alive, caressing the fish with an appraising hand and then drawing his forefinger and thumb to his nose to smell the bouquet as if it were a wine someone had brought him from Italy. He guided my hand along the backbone of a majestic halibut, telling me to admire its firm muscularity.