The Catch, Pt. 3: The killing floor

Part 3 of my uncle Mike Sutter’s journal from a factory fishing trawler in the Bering Sea. Much of the restaurant “whitefish” we eat comes from boats like this.
By Mike Sutter | The Bering Sea | 1988
Fishing and processing. That is what we’re here for. It’s the sole purpose of our existence now.
The fish are located by sonar. The net is let out and held open by huge steel doors, and electronic sensors tell the Norwegian fishmaster when it is full enough to reel in. It is dragged aboard and the fish — 50 to 80 tons at a time — are dumped into holding tanks. The bottoms of the tanks have doors that open in the processing factory. The doors are opened and the catch spills out onto conveyor belts and sorted. The pollock and cod, if they are of the correct size, are kept. Everything else — oversized fish, fish of a different species, squid, small crabs, eel — are put on a belt that carries them back to the water. Unfortunately, they are not usually alive. The rapid ascent in the net causes their air bladders to expand too rapidly.
The cod and pollock that are kept are carried by conveyor into separate tanks. The cod, ugly fish that weigh from 20 to 40 pounds or thereabouts, are cleaned by hand. The head is cut off with a power saw, and the carcass proceeds down a line where people remove the innards. The fish are packed into large pans and frozen. I believe they are purchased mainly by the Japanese.
The pollock is what we are after, and they are caught in huge numbers. From their tanks, they are carried to the fillet machines, which remove the heads, bones, innards and skin. The fillets leave these machines and flop onto candling tables, wide translucent belts with bright lights underneath which allow workers to “see through” the fish meat. The idea is to remove fillets that have pieces of skin still attached or have bones the machine failed to cut out. They are also inspected for worms, blood spots and parasites. We are constantly reminded that the candling tables are where the money is made, because high quality means high marketability and a higher price. But this stage of the operation is generally considered a big joke, at least when manned by a crew that is inexperienced.
The fillets go by so quickly that it is impossible for the crew to look at every one. Quality is drummed into our heads but falls by the wayside as the fish zoom by, and the crew, out of desperation, often pull fish off simply to play it safe, and playing it safe is not profitable. If it is done to too great an extent, the volume of fish that are processed and sold falls below acceptable levels. The candling crew is then bitched at and ordered to make sure good fillets are distinguishable from bad fillets. Since the speed of the belt makes this impossible, more fillets are accepted with only a glance or out of guesswork. The quality then nosedives, the candling crew is admonished again, and the circle of events proceeds on its merry way. Not helping the situation any is the fact that manning the candling tables is very boring and hard on the eyes and hypnotic, like driving a car at night directly into blowing snow. The candling line is considered the worst job in the factory. People who are kept on it are constantly bitching and volunteering for other jobs, and if a person somewhere else in the factory screws up, he or she is threatened with candling duty if performance isn’t improved. But the process must go on, so when the fillets leave the candling tables, they are assumed to have been “sorted.”
The rejected fillets, those with parasites or worms or bones, are pulverized to the consistency of applesauce, put in a centrifuge to remove the foreign matter which brought about their rejection, packed in cartons and frozen. These blocks are sold, as one Norwegian put it, to “people with no teeth.”
The acceptable fillets go to one of two places, depending on their size and appearance, in theory at least. Small fillets, those under 2 ounces, are packed into 16-pound blocks, frozen and sold to companies which make fish sticks and other such products. Larger fillets are sent to a department called IQF — “individual quick frozen.” They are flash-frozen, quickly dipped in water to give them a smooth glaze and packed into 25-pound boxes. They are sold to restaurants.
These processes continue 24 hours a day. Barring mechanical breakdowns in certain critical areas, such as the fillet machines or net apparatus, the only time we get relief is when the ship is en route to Dutch Harbor for offloading. During these periods, another form of drudgery falls upon us, and it is called cleaning. We clean every surface in the factory. The machines, the stainless steel, the belts, the floors, the walls, all must be free of any traces of fish before we are finished. The task is attacked with high-pressure hoses, industrial soap, brushes, scrapers, scouring pads and elbow grease, and when one shift goes off duty, the next shift goes over the same surfaces with the same tools.
From the company: “Wages are paid on a share basis. Your earnings will be based on a percentage of the value of the finished catch. That means that your wages are dependent upon production — *the more you produce, the more you earn.* The final percentage will be determined by the total number of crew shares on board the vessel.”
In case of a mechanical breakdown or some rare, freakish occurrence, cleaning is also regarded by these Norwegians as a great way to keep us busy. This is a constant source of irritation to us. We regard it as mindless busy-work that prevents us from sleeping or relaxing. The factory must, of course, be thoroughly scrubbed periodically to keep the equipment running and to preserve some degree of cleanliness and sanitation, and this type of scrubbing takes place whenever were are en route to Dutch Harbor.
I’ve heard none of my shipmates complain about the necessity of this. But at other times, during brief lulls in the operation, when we know that more fish will be forthcoming soon, most of subscribe to the “big chunk” theory — shovel up the big stuff and let’s get the hell out of here for awhile. After all, our earnings are based on a percentage of the catch, not an hourly wage. It costs the fishing company nothing to have us sitting around when there is no pressing reason not to. Alas, we allow our hopes and logic to suck us into a dream world. We are kept busy.
Off-loading the catch in Dutch Harbor is a relatively simple, straightforward operation. A crew is put in the freezer hold to load boxes of fish onto a conveyor that brings them to the deck, where another crew is stationed to take them off the conveyor, palletize them and send them to the hold of the cargo ship that is berthed next to us and will take the fish to Seattle. The only glitch is that pressure is put upon us to finish this job as soon as possible, because the faster we offload, the more quickly we can return to sea and resume fishing. When we’re fishing, we’re making money; offloading is sort of dead time.
This pressure to hurry up creates a few problems. There are a lot of smashed fingers and toes and sore backs, because boxes are flying before the people they are flying to are ready for them. A lot of boxes are lifted twice because, for instance, the crew in the hold of our ship keeps sending them to the deck before the crew on deck has a pallet to put them on. And there is a subtle undercurrent of irritation directed toward people who are perceived as not doing their share of the work, or toward the foremen who stand doing nothing but counting pallets and kicking people in the ass. All in all, though, I look upon offloading as a welcome relief from processing fish.
(Photos by Douglas Sundberg)