The Catch, Pt. 10: Abandon ship

The last installment of my uncle Mike Sutter’s journal from a factory fishing trawler on the Bering Sea
By Mike Sutter | The Bering Sea | 1988
November 23, the day morale takes a nosedive. The fishmaster — the boss of bosses, the man responsible for all fishing and processing operations — calls a meeting. He has a financial report on the progress we’ve made since we started. In so many words, he says we aren’t making diddly-squat. I’ve been working almost 90 hours per week for a month, labor twice as many hours as I sleep, have developed a painful case of tendonitis from my labors, and here is this man who is probably making 10 times as much as I am telling me I haven’t done enough, and that dammit, he’s got enough to worry about without babysitting us. One person quits on the spot, and many others start thinking about it.
Later in the day, another meeting. I think the fishmaster realized what a mistake he had made not to offer encouragement instead of bitching and threatening. This time he keeps quiet. A representative from the Norwegian outfit that built and owns a piece of the ship does the talking. By coincidence, he produces a letter from the president of the fishing company. The president is proud of us for the progress we’ve made and for making the best of it on a new and untested ship, and he hopes that we won’t be discouraged (just because we are working for nothing) and that we stick with it. As an incentive, he offers those who finish their contracts a “new boat” bonus. Instead of the usual 26 percent of the sale price of the fish to be divided among the crew, the ante will be upped to 30 percent. The Norwegian representative adds that $15 per day for food does sound high, and he will look into the situation and reimburse us if his investigation of actual food receipts warrants it.
The days that follow are full of vagueness and rumor. Our questions about money go unanswered except for handwritten figures on a piece of paper posted each day on the bulletin board, telling us the tonnage processed the previous day and how much the tonnage earned per share. But the figures are handwritten and take into account deductions, and their validity is suspect in any case because we can’t understand how the value of the fish can be determined before they are sold. “Veterans” dribble off the ship and new faces appear. There are a few more meetings, but no solid information is passed on to us, and we remain in the dark.
Finally, the situation comes to a head. It is the middle of December. We are in Dutch Harbor to offload fish. A processor calls his brother in Seattle. The brother is handling our man’s finances, including fishing income. Our man is told that not only is he making no money but that he OWES money to the company.
His gross earnings are not enough to cover deductions for taxes, food and packaging costs. We are all aware of the fact that taxes and the daily food charge will come out of our pockets, and we are also aware of the fact that crewmembers are charged for the cardboard and plastic used to pack the processed fish. The theory is that we will be less apt to damage or carelessly use the packaging if we know we’re paying for it. But we were told that this cost would be “insignificant.” What our man found out about his finances seemed to indicate otherwise, and various crewmembers demanded to be given accurate figures. The managers of the fishing company, faced with numerous requests for information and airplane tickets, have relented, and Doug and I have discovered that this cost is over one-third of our gross pay, and by anyone’s measure, that is not insignificant. We also assume that, like our fellow processor, we owe money to the company as well. We have no heart left for our work.
Doug and I are in our cabin, talking things over, and I remark that if someone told me I could go home tomorrow, I would, and Doug replies, “Why not?” So we talk to the captain. We’re grown men, we say. We have bills to pay and obligations to meet. We are not kids who can go home to Mom and Dad with empty pockets and laugh the whole thing off. We can’t afford to work for nothing. The captain sympathizes with us, and the next day we’re off the boat and hurrying to the airport to catch the last plane of the day to Anchorage. We just miss it and have to stay overnight in a motel fashioned from an old Army barracks and catch a plane the next day. We have to wait one night in Anchorage, too, but on the 20th of December we arrive in Seattle.
So we’ve worked hundreds of hours and have virtually nothing to show for it. We might realize a bit of cash from the last offload, because there were hundreds of tons of processed fish in the freezer, but it won’t be enough to make up for all the work we’ve put in.
What happened? Why didn’t we bring home the $6,000 were assured we would? Why was this such a financial disaster when other people on other ships make such good money? I have a few ideas. One, virtually the entire processing crew was green or, at best, inexperienced, and it took some time for us to learn our jobs and become proficient at them. Two, this was the ship’s maiden voyage. It was brand new and untested. Mistakes were made and bugs were discovered, and speed and efficiency suffered. Some machines had to be moved or removed. The mincing machine which turned rejected fillets into a usable, marketable product that accounted for a huge amount of tonnage, was not put into operation until two weeks after the start of the voyage. We made extra trips to Akutan and Dutch Harbor to pick up equipment and people, and had to spend extra time in these places while the ship was being worked on, and so the time spent fishing was reduced. Three, the fishing company, either out of inexperience or stupidity, was guilty of gross mismanagement. There was no communication downward. Conflicts of information, concerning things as diverse as earnings and chains of command, were allowed to flourish, with no clarification from above. People lost respect for the company and had no confidence in it, and morale and incentive deteriorated. Four, this particular crew rebelled against the Norwegian style of bossism, which entails over-supervision and constant harassment. We were regarded as pack animals. We were bitched at and prodded but never encouraged. We were not respected as an integral part of the crew.
So I came home frustrated. Doug and I discussed our frustration with the fishing company and tried to persuade them to do right by us by paying us a morally acceptable amount of money for our hard labor; our words fell on sympathetic but unyielding ears. One of my fellow slave laborers called me several days later and informed me that he had asked a lawyer to look into the situation. The lawyer called me and asked for my views and perceptions. I replied that someone had made money on my hundreds of hours of work but it wasn’t me. I told the lawyer of the assurances of income we had received when were hired, of the high packaging and food costs. He thanked me for my help. So that’s it. So much for fishing. What’s next?
From a letter my Uncle Mike wrote to my parents in January 1989:
“Here is an account of my adventures as a fisherman. You’ll discover when you read it that the first two months were a financial disaster for me. The only thing that prevented it from being a complete fiasco was the paycheck I just received for the fish that was in the process of being offloaded when I left the ship. The load was huge and my check was sizable. But during the time covered by this account, we slimeballs did so poorly that after various deductions, most of us owed the fishing company money...
“My anger is subsiding. I’m beginning to think that the only thing the company was guilty of was incredible, mind-boggling stupidity because of its newness. And it seems to have learned from its mistakes and is taking steps to correct the situation. For instance, the deductions that made my earnings disappear are now being absorbed by the company as a cost of doing business, and the contracts now offered to new fishermen include money guarantees and other benefits.
“I know all this because the personnel manager is trying to convince me to go back to Alaska. I’m in demand. I’m now an “experienced” crewman, and it’s in the company’s interest to get guys like me back on the ship. He’s offered to double my share of the catch. I’m thinking about it.”
My uncle never did go back to Alaska.
(TOP PHOTO: Birds following the ship, feeding on scraps. Sometimes there were so many they blotted out the sky. INSET PHOTO: My uncle Mike Sutter, left, and crewmate Douglas Sundberg as they prepare to leave the ship.)