‘Sometimes we get bored’: Unalaska fish processors work back-to-back seasons to keep their jobs

Workers sort opilio crab at the UniSea plant in Unalaska. Company officials have said they're hoping to employ four inmates during the winter fishing season.
Workers sort opilio crab at the UniSea plant in Unalaska. Company officials have said they’re hoping to employ four inmates during the winter fishing season. (Photo by Laura Kraegel/KUCB)

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Unalaska’s onshore processing plants have chosen to keep seasonal employees on the island between fishing seasons.

In the rural Alaskan town of 4,500 year-round residents, an influx of about 1,000 international workers, who are looking for ways to keep busy, is quite a change.

UniSea is keeping plant security tight. In order to enter, everyone must pass through a checkpoint and show a company ID or be placed on a list of expected visitors.

That check-in is one of many strategies the plant is employing to keep the virus out. Another strategy is keeping workers on the island in between fishing seasons.

Usually, processors come from all over the world to this island town. They stay from January to April, for what’s known as “A” season, then leave to go home. Many come back for “B” season, from June until September.

But this year, UniSea required that anyone who wants to work the “B” season stay on-island for the several weeks between seasons. That way, no one travels and risks bringing COVID-19 back to the plant.

It’s easiest to think of a processing plant almost like a college campus. Everyone eats at the same dining hall. Everyone sleeps in shared bunkhouses. If the virus enters, it could spread like wildfire.

Now Unalaska’s plants, and the island, have an odd problem on their hands: how to keep roughly a thousand workers occupied while they wait for the next fishing season to begin.

Todor Gjokov is from Macedonia, where he’s finishing up a Master’s degree. He came here for the “A” season and decided to stay longer.

Usually, he works 12-hour days in the plants as a processor. But in the off-season, he’s making sure UniSea’s common areas are clean and not overcrowded.

“I am the one that is coordinating the recreational area,” said Gjokov. “I am the one who is responsible for making sure we have no more than six people in the pool room.”

There’s a gym, a couple of pool tables—even a movie room, with chairs carefully spaced 6 feet apart.

 

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