Earlier this year I wrote something about the two seasons I spent working on a factory trawler in Alaska. A couple of people mentioned that they were curious about the specifics of the work on the ship.
This is a photo taken in the factory, which is the middle level of the ship, below the deck, where the deckhands deal with the nets that catch the fish, and above the freezer hold, which was a large room about the size of a small basketball gym that was kept at -20 degrees fahrenheit. The boat was about 220 feet long, and the drag nets could hold 90 tons of fish. Depending on when it was in the season, we fished for pollack, sole, and cod. One time, one of the nets exploded and the entire deck of the boat was covered with about two feet of fish, many of which were alive. I went up there and grabbed a push broom and helped to move them into what was called the “live tank”, a chamber with water where the fish were kept until they could be processed. It was a beautiful day and it was surreal to be out on the ocean under the sky standing on a surface with live fish up to my knees thrashing around.
At the very beginning of the first season, we spent a few days fishing for sole. These are strange looking fish. They live on the bottom of the ocean and they’re called “flatfish” because, though most of their bodies are identical to fish that live vertically, they swim around horizontally on the ocean floor. So they look weird because they have two eyes on one side of their head, one where a “normal” fish eye would be and the other near a cheek. And their mouths are regular fish mouths and so are asymetrical. Evolution at work! Halibut are also flatfish. The thing about the sole is that, perhaps since they are used to living so deep with so much pressure, their bodies are particularly tough. Which meant that they lived quite a while after we pulled them up in nets.
So there I am the first day of fishing, and I’m standing over a table with a large Japanese butcher knife in my hand and down the conveyer belt come piles of sole, and they are all alive and still flapping around. And my job is to grab one sole at a time and, using a technique shown to me by the factory boss, cut off the fish’s head with the knife—two quick slashes, one on each side of the head. I have to hold the fish down with one hand and it’s trying to flap around, and then I make the cuts with the other and I can feel the fish jerking away in what I’m guessing is pain every time I slash it with a knife.
So I did this to exactly one fish, and I was completely horrified, it felt like murder, pure and simple. And I thought to myself, my god, I can’t do this, I have to quit, I guess. But that would have been a big deal. By that point, the company had invested a lot in me and I would have had to be flown back home, would have cost a lot of money and been hugely embarrassing. So I did the weak thing and kept going. And I got used to it.
(I stopped eating land-based meat about 12 years ago, but I still eat fish sometimes. And part of me thinks, well, I have earned the right to eat fish. I could not kill a pig or a cow or a chicken but I could kill a fish and have in fact killed many thousands of them with my own hands. I have a sense of what happens when they are in pain and how they die so that people can eat them. Not calling this an air-tight ethical system or anything but hey.)
So that was sole, but most of our money was made fishing for pollack. This is a sort of generic fish, related to cod, that is mostly used the world over for fish sandwiches and things like imitation crab. It has a mild flavor and takes on other flavors easily. We sold much of our catch to Japan and a good chunk of it in America to Long John Silver’s.
Pollack were beheaded and filleted by machines manufactured by a company called Baader. These machines were extremely sophisticated and expensive, with computers and guides to measure every fish and apply just the right cuts to extract the filet but not waste any meat. One job was to “drive” the machines which meant to stand over a pile of fish and slot them into a belt that moved through the machines. A good driver would never have an empty slot so that machines worked at maximum efficiency. If the machines broke, we were all losing money (everyone was paid as a percentage of the catch), so there were technicians who made more than anyone on the boat other than the captain, and they worked to get the machines moving again. They had an important and stressful job.
After the filets came out of the machine, they were “candled” (examined over a lighted table) for any stray bones or bits of skin, which were trimmed off by “candlers.” And from there they were loaded into baskets and weighed and then the baskets of fish were packed into small wax-lined boxes, loaded into racks, and placed on shelves in a compression freezer. The shelves were lowered and the fish were frozen into blocks in about two hours. That’s me standing next to a compression freezer. By my left knee, you can see the steel racks that the fish were packed into. I think each box weight about 15 pounds and there were two of them plus the rack, probably a total of like 35 pounds. Each shelf held six of these, and there were 12 or so shelves.
One of my jobs, which I would do for 8 hours of my 16-hour shift, was called freezer breaker. The freezer break involved raising the compression freezer so that you could access all the shelves, taking the frozen racks out of each shelf one-by-one, putting the rack into a pneumatic punch, and punching the frozen blocks of fish out the rack so that they would travel down the conveyor belt to my left until they reached my partner at the other end of the belt. He would pack up the smaller boxes into a larger box, tape it, and send it down another conveyor to the freezer hold. A guy who worked down there would grab the boxes and stack them carefully to “pack out” the freezer, not wasting an inch of space. By the time the freezer was “plugged” or full, there would only be enough space in this enormous room for him to barely fit his body as he stuffed more boxes in.
Freezer breaker was a physically demanding job. You had to move as fast as you could because, as quickly as you were breaking the freezers, a team on the other side was filling them back up. And only one person broke freezers, while there might be four on the other side packing. The worst thing that could ever happen is that I didn’t break freezers fast enough and the fish would be moving through the factory and there were no shelves to put them in. We’d all lose a ton of money and it would be a disaster. So when the fish were humming I had to be going full tilt breaking those freezers. We got competitive to see how many you could break in a shift. I think the record was something like 14. After 8 hours of that you’d be so tired you couldn’t think. And then you had 8 more hours to go (I broke freezers from midnight until 8 am, and then, after a lunch break, packed them from 8:30 am to 4 pm).
It probably wasn’t a coincidence that packing and breaking freezers were the two jobs that took place in the vicinity of the boom box. The music was going 24 hours a day, but we only had a handful of tapes. I can remember them all and I’ve memorized them: Metallica’s black album, Pearl Jam 10, Stone Temple Pilots Core, a Candlebox record, a live Scorpions album, a live Molly Hatchet album. Once in a while I’d put Check Your Head in there but it wasn’t well liked. Now and then the first mate, who usually worked on deck or in the wheelhouse, directing the ship during the 8 hours the captain slept, would come down and work in the factory, and he was a Deadhead. So he’d play a show tape and it was heaven. He also liked Little Feat and would play Goodbye Columbus once in a while.
I celebrated my 24th birthday on the boat and I was in this spot breaking freezers. At one point during my shift, the guy in the freezer hold popped his head out from the ladder down below and said, “Hey Mark, can you help me with something down here?” So I climbed down the ladder and, as I said, it’s 20 below, I’m shivering. It was quiet down in the freezer compared to the noise of the factory. All the cardboard boxes absorbed the sound and it was dark, kind of peaceful, no one around. But also unbelievably cold. And I’m like, “What do you need help with?” And he says, “I want you to help me smoke this” and he hands me a bowl packed with weed. And so we smoked, quickly, and I got really stoned and I was ready to climb back up and break some more freezers and I said, “Thanks man, how did you know it was my birthday?” And he burst out laughing and said, “Holy shit I had no idea! Happy birthday!”