Immigration fight cripples Alaska fishing as foreign help vanishes

Not many Americans want to spend the summer processing seafood in Alaska for 16 hours a day, seven days a week, earning $10 an hour straight time and $15 an hour overtime.

But the prospect of working 112 hours and grossing about $1,400 a week — in a good fishing year — appeals to workers from countries where the pay for unskilled labor is a good deal lower than $10 an hour.

"It's very hard to work 16 hours a day, but after three weeks you receive your first paycheck," Danica Spasic, an elementary school teacher from Belgrade, Serbia, said about working for a Valdez fish processor on a temporary visa.

In a video posted on YouTube as a recruiting tool for Serbian workers, she talks about how pleased she was to work for Silver Bay Seafoods in 2015 with weekly summer paychecks of about $1,000.

"You do not want to have day off because in Serbia you cannot earn that amount of money for sure," she said.

The workday — during good fishing seasons — leaves time for work and sleep but not much else before the long flight home.

She said that the managers of the plant knew that the Europeans wanted the overtime hours and were there to work hard, and "that's the reason they allow us to work more than the Americans."


In fact, Americans are free to work those same hours for fish processing companies in remote locations on short-term jobs, but many of them have better opportunities closer to home.

This is how the national controversy about limiting the number of temporary unskilled workers allowed to travel to the U.S. under the so-called H2-B visa program has disrupted one of Alaska's largest industries.

Bristol Bay fishing was excellent this summer, but fishermen "left a significant portion of sockeye in the water this year mainly due to a lack of foreign workers," the Undercurrent News reported in late July.

The loss could have been from 60,000 to 100,000 pounds per boat, many millions in losses to fishermen alone, Brian Gannon of United Work and Travel, a recruiting agency, told a reporter for the seafood publication.

It's not clear how many hundreds of jobs at fish processing facilities remained unfilled because of the absence of foreign workers.

Last year, Silver Bay Seafoods hired 833 foreign workers under the H2-B program. The company, which has 445 fishermen as shareholders, has only hired about 31 foreign workers this year because of the lack of visas, spokesman Joe Misenti said late last month.

The company has held 132 recruiting events in Alaska and 31 other states this year, spending about $800,000 on advertising, he said. But hundreds of jobs could not be filled.

Silver Bay found some workers in Puerto Rico, and operations at its plant in Naknek during the hectic Bristol Bay season led to unfavorable publicity and complaints by some workers about conditions at the plant.

The jobs would all be easier to fill if seafood processors raised the pay. That sounds simple, but this situation is more tangled than a fishing line rat's nest.

A lot of money would have to be pried out of someone else's unwilling hands, and Alaska competes for survival in a risky worldwide market where labor is much cheaper elsewhere. There is pressure to automate, cut costs and fend off farmed salmon.

The seafood processing industry has lined up a large foreign workforce in the past, but not this year. The federal exemption that allowed the companies to not count "returning workers" under the H2-B program quota ended last September.

By the time the seafood companies were able to apply for federal hiring approval — applications could only be filed 90 days before the season — the federal visa limit set by Congress had been reached.

Congress gave the secretary of Homeland Security the option of allowing about 65,000 more temporary foreign workers into the country, through a measure approved during the spring.

In a May 25 hearing, Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that fish-processing companies were in serious danger of losing a big chunk of business.

That is more or less what happened in Bristol Bay, where record runs of salmon at a time of high prices led to quotas for taking in fish at the processing plants because of labor shortages.

In March, both of Alaska's senators joined 30 other Republicans and Democrats to ask for more visa approvals, saying the viability of many businesses depends on the imported workers. But other lawmakers and some in the Trump administration say the program pushes down wages and takes away American jobs.

In July, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly approved a nationwide increase of 15,000 visas, about 45,000 below the number he could have approved under the discretionary authority granted by a divided Congress.


"This is one of those things I really wish I didn't have any discretion. And for every senator or congressman that has your view, I have another one that says, 'Don't you dare, this is about American jobs,'" Kelly told Murkowski at a hearing in May.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.