The seafood processing industry - part of the manufacturing sector - includes businesses that clean, freeze, can, smoke, salt and dry seafood. It also includes firms that shuck and pack shellfish. Although Oregon currently doesn't have any, it also would include processor ships that do these operations at sea. Except for certain fishermen licensed to sell fresh fish from their boats, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife requires commercial fishers to sell their harvest to licensed wholesale fish dealers or licensed fish buyers. Many of these dealers and buyers are also processors.
In fist four month of 2012, Oregon exported $9.6 million worth of seafood directly to other countries. Canada is by far the leading destination. Seafood exports are growing; Oregon exported $11.8 million of seafood in the first four months of 2013. Crustaceans, mostly crab, accounted for about half the exports.
A major trend within the seafood processing industry is consolidation. Oregon has lost six business units in the processing industry since 2000 - a drop of nearly 20 percent. The industry's consolidation goes hand in hand with the geographic consolidation in the Oregon fishing fleet. Three ports: Astoria, Newport and Charleston, had almost 96 percent of all commercial fish landings by volume in Oregon in 2012. Smaller ports like Garibaldi, Depoe Bay, and Florence struggle to find money for infrastructure, dredging, and jetty maintenance that can attract vessel owners and seafood processors.
Employment in seafood processing tends to be fairly seasonal. It peaks in midsummer and hits its low point in March. Much of the industry's employment depends directly on when fish are landed. This in turn depends on weather, ocean conditions, fish life cycles, and regulations, especially those established by the Pacific Fishery Management Council. This council has the authority to open and close many fisheries important to Oregon.
The summer employment peak coincides not only with better fishing weather, but increased availability of fish. Sardines, tuna, salmon, and especially Pacific whiting, are all available in the summer. Pacific whiting, also called hake, is typically Oregon's largest fishery by volume. More than 107 million pounds were landed in 2012. (On the other hand, because it was plentiful it fetched only 14 cents per pound when landed.) Whiting is used to make surimi, which in turn is used to make imitation "crab" or "lobster" meat. Manufacturing surimi requires a good deal of very controlled processing and rapid cleaning and handling of the fish. This means that surimi processors must hire many seasonal employees.
Another, smaller, peak in seafood processing employment typically occurs in December and January. Although the weather is often dangerously bad at this time, December is usually the beginning of the Dungeness crab harvest. Crab is Oregon's most valuable single fishery. About 8.6 million pounds were landed in 2012 - a poor year. In contrast to inexpensive whiting, Dungeness crab fetched about $3.35 per pound. Only salmon had a higher average price among Oregon's major fisheries in 2012. The crab harvest is a derby fishery; it's first come, first served as boats and crews race to scoop up as much as they can before someone else does. The result is a glut of crab landing on processors' docks that must be cleaned, cooked, picked, and frozen in short order. Seasonal employees allow processors to get through the short-lived crab bonanza.
The skill requirements are modest for many seafood processing jobs. Line jobs are generally entry level. Applicants often must pass a drug screening test and a criminal background check. The work is often 12-hour shifts, seven days per week during the busy seasons. Overtime is a part of the job and the base pay is usually minimum wage. Other jobs, such as truck drivers and quality inspectors, require more skill and pay more.
Other firms that distribute seafood or sell wholesale or retail may also do some processing. The Garibaldi Cannery on Tillamook Bay is one such multi-purpose firm. The company does processing, buying, and retail and helps keep the port at Garibaldi an active fishing port. Small firms are more common for salmon and albacore tuna. The websites for the Oregon Albacore Commission and the Oregon Salmon Commission each list several dozen firms that handle these seafood products and provide canned, frozen, and fresh fish.
Seafood processing is also one way fishers can add value to their product and help develop their local economy. Newport fisherman Herb Goblirsch started Oregon's Choice Gourmet Albacore 34 years ago to can and market his albacore tuna harvest directly to consumers. Today several dozen fishers are processing and directly marketing their catch.
One such fishing family is Doug and Muriel Moore of Newport, who started Sea Star Enterprise. Doug bought his commercial fishing boat in 1989 and started processing some of his own catch in 2000. Sea Star Enterprise began by selling directly to restaurants then expanded to selling at farmers' markets and from their vessel. They sell primarily fresh and frozen tuna and salmon, but also offer canned product. Maintaining sanitary conditions and proper handling to ensure the highest possible quality of product is the Moore's main mission. A primary concern for Doug is that poor handling of fish by some fisher/processors will lead to contaminated products and regulations that may burden all small processors. Doug and Muriel both stress the importance of having consumers know and use only reliable sources when buying fish directly.
The Alaska processing work is similar to that in Oregon: few skill or experience requirements, working on a processing line, 12- to 16-hour days, seven days per week. The difference is the geographic isolation. Many Alaska facilities are in remote locations and employees live in dormitory style housing in company towns.