Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Seafood inspector Scott Albrecht
Scott Albrecht jots down notes on a package of frozen crab he’s inspecting at his lab in Port of Everett, Washington. He analyzes aspects such as the weight, color, taste, and number of broken pieces. Photo by Cory Parris

Coastal Job: Seafood Inspector

Scott Albrecht has a trained eye for spotting harmful defects in the ocean’s bounty.

Authored by

As told to Stephenie Livingston

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Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.

As a seafood inspector for NSF International, a global public health and safety organization, Scott Albrecht probes aquatic species for parasites, imperfections, and even fraud. He is stationed 40 kilometers north of Seattle, Washington, in bustling Port of Everett.

I see it all: shrimp, scallops, salmon, beer-battered cod, fish sticks. I’m a seafood inspector with NSF International, an independent organization that examines seafood products for retailers and distributers. We’re like CSI for fish. It’s a job I’ve had for nearly 10 years, but I’ve worked in the seafood industry far longer.

My story begins in 1983, when I was a ski bum and college dropout living in Colorado. At the end of the ski season, I hitched a ride to Alaska where I worked on the “slime line” of a fish processing plant in Homer. The slime line is just how it sounds: fish are unloaded from vessels and passed down a line of workers who cut off heads, remove guts, and scrape out what’s left. It’s cold and wet. You wear rain gear while working inside a 10 °C cooler for 13 hours a day. I learned that Dawn dish soap and water help get the fish smell off. Well, at least until Pacific herring comes down the line. Whew! That’s one of the worst smelling fish. I had to burn my clothes after that season.

Inspecting isn’t a dirty job in the way you might expect—nothing like the slime line. I work in a clean, controlled lab environment. Sometimes I wear an apron, but usually a T-shirt is all I need. Most of what I inspect comes directly off the boats. Otherwise, it’s delivered by seafood buyers that get their product direct from a processing plant and want a third-party inspection. I look for seafood quality and safety violations that could damage the seller’s reputation by inspecting a specimen’s weight, skin color, glaze, and external defects. Then I fillet it and look for internal problems like bruising, parasites, and gaping, which happens when tissue breaks apart in an unappetizing way. Seafood is different from the beef and poultry industries. I’m not looking at one species, like a cow or a chicken. Rather, I’m inspecting hundreds of different aquatic species from all over the world.

I’ve done DNA testing for a grocery store chain in Florida concerned about red snapper, a product highly susceptible to fish fraud—a crime in which processors substitute low-value species for high-end species. While there is only one species considered red snapper, similar species are easy dupes. Some of it is ignorance. Some of it is outright deception by the processor. Regardless, I catch it.

When I talk about my work, though, people are most freaked out by parasites. They’re common in seafood, but tough to spot by the untrained eye. If you have marine mammals in the ecosystem, for example, you’re going to have little round worms called nematodes. In some species, they’re pigmented and easy to spot. In salmon, they’re as translucent as cellophane noodles.

A few years ago, I inspected for a grocery store chain and their seafood procurement person placed beautiful sockeye salmon on the table—absolutely beautiful! Except for one thing. “You’ve got a couple of nematodes in this,” I said. He walked over to the fish, looked it over and said, “I don’t see any.” I was able to pull out two long worms. I’ve been doing this for so long, I see the little dimples and just know.