Alaska Aquaculture Jobs
Aquaculture is a process by which man-made facilities and scientific methods are used to raise marine animals and plants. In Alaska, the majority of aquaculture operations focus on producing hatchery salmon. Today, both commercial and sport fishermen have come to appreciate the work of the aquaculture organizations because hatchery-reared fish account for a good portion of all fish caught.
Hatcheries are generally owned and operated by the state, private nonprofit organizations, or private individuals. State-run operations are overseen by the Commercial Fisheries Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
These state hatcheries have placed special emphasis on maintaining natural salmon spawning habitats. On the other hand, certain private nonprofit organizations focus on the pen-rearing of fish, and more traditional salmon raising techniques. Funds to support the nonprofit hatcheries come from two sources: an enhancement tax on fish caught by commercial fishermen, and a cost-recovery program that allows each operation to harvest and sell a certain number of fish each year.
In the most fundamental sense, aquaculturists work to ensure the continued health of salmon runs by maintaining natural habitats, supplementing wild runs with hatchery fish, developing rearing methods which result in larger fish returning to rivers to spawn, and enhancing the physical health of hatchery fish populations.
Aquaculture – or fisheries enhancement – has become a vital part of the fishing industry because so many Alaskans depend on fishing for both income and subsistence. Hatchery fish account for between 15 and 20 percent (depending on the species) of the yearly harvest and have greatly bolstered the overall profitability of the fishing industry.
Fisheries aquaculture is a diverse industry with a variety of job opportunities. As you might surmise, hatcheries play a big role in the whole fishing industry (producing 14 to 20 percent of all fish caught!) and therefore require a good crew in order to run efficiently. In fact, we were told that some of the larger private organizations have a tradition of promoting job availability on college campuses – especially those with fishery programs. During the summer months, hatcheries throughout Alaska need people for a variety of seasonal aquaculture jobs. Descriptions of some of the positions that are generally available to both newcomers and experienced people are given below:
Fish Technician Jobs
Fish technician positions, which are seasonal jobs, are sometimes available to those without related experience and education, but the work is very hard, wet, cold, and often monotonous. Sounds like processing, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, most people find the experience to be both fun and rewarding. Many college students spend their summers working for various aquaculture associations and make good money while learning about the industry. People who have an interest in fisheries should consider doing this work for a summer.
During the summer months of June, July, and August, the majority of aquaculture stations/hatcheries begin a process called “egg take.” Hatcheries may begin egg take as soon as male and female salmon return to their native rivers to spawn. Fish are netted in the river or herded into fish raceways and then killed for both the female’s eggs and the male’s milt (sperm). After this collection, eggs and milt are taken from the fish and combined in an incubator or hatch box. Millions of fertilized eggs will develop into salmon fry (fish up to 1 inch in length), and eventually into smolt. On an average day at the hatchery, workers get up around seven or eight in the morning and are assigned to a station for the day. Quite possibly, you will be a fish killer, fish crowder, fish bonker, or egg rinser. Maybe you’ll be cleaning weirs, sampling smolt to determine their health, or releasing smolt into the ocean. Jobs may change from day to day and vary depending on location.
Privately owned hatcheries and aquaculture operations begin their own salmon harvesting in July. Fish techs may play a role in this “cost-recovery fish harvesting,” which generally utilizes seining and gillnetting methods. The state of Alaska allows private hatcheries to recover some of their operating costs through the harvesting and sale of certain numbers of salmon. Collectively, egg take and cost recovery harvesting provide the most work for seasonal employment candidates, with other seasonal projects providing a small amount of additional work.
Applying for a Job
Most of the aquaculture associations and fisheries enhancement programs listed at the end of this section will begin processing applications and tendering job offers as early as late winter and continue doing so until June. Those who are available to work prior to summer should say so because there is a need for employees as early as March. During this time, and into April and May, fish tagging, rearing of young salmon, and a lot of detail and maintenance work takes place. Hatchery directors begin to fill temporary and seasonal positions when the first part of June rolls around. Summer applications usually get rolling in June, but we’ve been told that the easiest time to actually get a position is in July and August because fewer people are looking for work and many operations find themselves short on help. How long you work once you are hired is hard to predict. Egg take can last all summer or for less than two months. We spoke with a group of seasonal workers during a recent trip to Alaska, and they had been putting in forty-hour weeks from June until August.
Entry-level fish techs start off with the most mundane work and gradually work into positions of more responsibility and better pay, especially if they return to work the following year. The return rate of hatchery employees is close to 50 percent. We have been told more than once that many of the hatchery crew move from the Lower 48 and permanently relocate in Alaska. Finally, when you do talk to an organization representative you should express your real interest in the work. Preferred applicants are those who would like to study fisheries and explore the industry as a career option.
Compensation for Temporary Employees
Unfortunately, many operations have begun to experience budget cuts, but that doesn’t mean that good-paying jobs are not available. Entry-level seasonal workers can expect to earn Alaska’s minimum wage ($10.85/hour as of January 1, 2023). Overtime pay at time-and-a-half is becoming rare. Returning workers usually begin their second season often get a base pay increase. We asked one hatchery director about overtime and he said, “Look at it this way, you will get paid for every hour you work.” Plan on working at least 40 hours per week for a month or two.
Benefits of aquaculture jobs can be numerous, particularly if you are assigned to work at one of the many remote-site locations. First of all, there’s usually no place to spend what you earn. These remote hatcheries are usually located near a river and close to the ocean in very scenic settings. Often, workers have to be flown in by float plane or brought to the location by boat. Once at the facility, employees are given a shared room in a small bunkhouse or in a large semi-permanent tent. Your daily meals are provided for free and served at a cafeteria by an on-site cook; expect good food, but nothing fancy. Typically, your co-workers will be a biologist, one or two fish culturists, and 10-12 seasonal crew members from all over the country.
If you work for a hatchery located in or near a city, you shouldn’t expect free room or board, but rate of pay and working conditions will be similar.
Please note that pay and benefits may vary slightly from one organization to another.