Teens take to fish processing work

Posted: Tuesday, July 25, 2000

An AP Member Exchange

KASILOF (AP) -- Fish guts lack glamour. But they are the ticket to big money for Kenai Peninsula teen-agers willing to endure the demands of fish processing work.

A growing percentage of the workers processing salmon this season on the central peninsula are minors, and for many it is their first foray into the world of paid labor.

Christie Utrup, a 16-year-old junior at Soldotna High School, is a novice in the Inlet Salmon roe room in Kasilof this year.

For her, the choice of the job was pretty much a foregone conclusion: Her dad is the plant manager, and this year he is shorthanded.

''I thought I'd come out and help him a bit,'' she said, during lunch hour in the plant break room.

Although her father works in the business, and she had been to the old Kasilof Inlet Salmon plant many times, she said she was unfamiliar with the daily work and with the larger facility the company is leasing this year from Trans Aqua.

Before she transferred to the Kasilof plant, she started work in mid June in the Kenai plant -- and she wasn't sure what to expect.

''I didn't know how long I would stick around or what exactly I would be doing,'' she said.

What she is doing is spending her days -- and much of her nights -- becoming intimate with the neon orange fish eggs.

Her supervisor, Sonja Barbaza, explained the process.

The sacs of roe are removed from the salmon during the gutting phase and put in vats of brine, where an agitator gently swirls them for about 20 minutes. Trained technicians from Japan grade the roe sacs. Utrup and others weigh the eggs and package them in boxes for export to the Japanese gourmet market.

The processors used to avoid hiring teens because laws limited the number of hours and days they could work. But several years ago the laws changed so that, if parents permit, they can work long summer hours, she said.

Barbaza praised Utrup as a helpful worker who takes initiative and doesn't take advantage of her father's position.

She said she is picky about who works under her.

''You prescreen them. If I don't think they can do the job, I can send them to processing,'' Barbaza said.

The long hours in all parts of the plant are grueling for workers of all ages.

Utrup said she doesn't even try to count her hours anymore and complained that her feet get tired. Other young workers complain of hand and arm strain. Fatigue is a given.

Over the past week, Utrup and others have been working 12- to 16-hour shifts to keep up with the peak of the run. In the process, they earn $7 per hour and time-and-a-half for overtime.

The long hours cut into the free time usually associated with summer vacation.

''I've seen, like, four people from school all summer, total,'' Utrup said. ''Most of my other friends work at other canneries, which is why I don't see them.''

She has found that staying awake on the job is the biggest challenge.

''I drink my Starbucks coffee,'' she said.

Utrup experienced the dangers of that fatigue firsthand.

''I totaled my car hitting a moose on the way home from work, like my fourth day working,'' she said. ''It was about 2 a.m.''

Now she plans to invest a sizable chunk of her earnings in fixing her car. She also plans to save up for college and prom.

''I need to get a dress. They are expensive,'' she said.

Utrup admitted that although she misses her school friends, she is enjoying the diverse people she meets at the cannery.

For the best of both worlds, she recommends that teens considering cannery work bring their friends along to sign up. She usually works alongside her best friend.

All in all, with the exception of the moose catastrophe, the job has been a positive experience, she said.

''I'd rather do this than school,'' she said.

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