The Catch, Pt. 7: Cold fish, hot mess

Part 7 of my uncle Mike Sutter’s journal from a factory fishing trawler in the Bering Sea.
By Mike Sutter | The Bering Sea | 1988
What time is it? What day is it? Getting out of bed and going to work twice each day confuses you a little. Frozen fillets. The slime line. Fish and fish heads and fish guts everywhere. Sweat and then get cold. Are we making money yet? Birds by the thousands following the ship. Birds as far as the eye can see. Nets out. Nets in. Empty the nets. Repair the nets. Slime and guts. Cold hands, cold toes. Coffee. Too tired for a bath. Blood-soaked paper towels and squeezed-empty tubes of antiseptic cream in the trash. Sinks plugged up by fish scales. Fillets. More guts. More carcasses. Thousands of bulging, lifeless eyes staring at you from the floor. Too big, too small. They look the same to me.
I saw one of the deckhands in the galley one evening making a sandwich out of vanilla pudding. Doug saw one of the Norwegians put jelly on her mashed potatoes.
I have never encountered work like this before. Everything connected with the fishing and processing operation is relentless. The fishing never stops, even when the holding tanks are full. My equipment never stops working. In fact, it can’t be shut off. The fillets keep coming. Bam! Bam! Bam! They fall from the conveyor into the metal bin in front of me. No matter how far behind I get, they keep coming. I can be inundated, overwhelmed, but they keep coming. Why? Money, money, money.
We are here to make money, and shutting off a machine or slowing it down is unthinkable. I had trouble adjusting to this unstoppable pace at first. I like to keep up, or get ahead if possible, but I found it impossible to do either of these things. I got a little frustrated, a little irritable. I considered it degrading that those who stood to make more money than me wee the ones who set the pace, and that the pace was just a little faster than a person could comfortably handle. Not much faster. Just enough to keep the person in a constant state of catching up. But then my foreman gave me some advice: Keep a smile on your face, do your best and laugh when the situation becomes ridiculous, when the bin fills up and the fillets spill out onto the floor and you’re swimming in the things. I tried it and it works and not keeping up is now the least of my worries.
One of the female combatants in the fight at the Unisea bar was fired. Someone wished her “good luck” as she walked toward the gangplank. She replied, “Go and die.” The woman of my dreams.
I am convinced that these machines were designed by some diabolical a-hole who enjoys causing misery and anxiety. I know for certain I am one of his victims. I think the conveyor that dumps the fillets into the bin in front of me is specially wired and equipped. When the tape machine that seals the filled boxes malfunctions, an electric impulse signals the conveyor to speed up. I think the conveyor has a photoelectric eye that tells it when I step away for a moment, because even if I’m away for 60 seconds, I am always behind when I return. And I think the conveyor has a sound-detection device that hears the toilet flushing.
If I wanted to incite a mutiny aboard this ship, I would use the meals we are fed to fuel it. Seventy of us are paying $15 per day to eat. That amounts to over $30,000 per month. I look at the hot dogs and the tuna casserole and the fish that came out of our own nets and I wonder where the money is going.
The head cook, a little Norwegian guy named Richard, qualified himself for this job by driving a truck for five years beforehand. Some of the meals are decent, mostly at suppertime, although when that happens, I always suspect that one of his assistants did most of the cooking. Salt and pepper are the only spices he’s ever heard of. There is probably not a single clove of garlic within 50 miles of this ship. He is the only cook I’ve ever encountered who thinks Italian spaghetti sauce tastes fine without basil or oregano in it. He thinks fried rice is the only thing he can use to mix leftovers with. He thinks variety for breakfast is well-served if he fixes pancakes and French toast on alternate days, no matter how many days there are to alternate. And those breakfasts are an exercise in grease consumption. He has bets on how many days it will take before somebody drops dead from granite arteries. He proudly serves up eggs swimming in butter and fatty sausage, and has browns so full of lard they are hash grays, and once in awhile he surprises us with fried fatty ham, full of gristle and sliced thinner than Bible paper. He made vanilla pudding pie one night whose crust smelled and tasted like wet cardboard. His gravy has transparent globs in it that refuse to mix in. Half the crew is chronically constipated and the other half has the runs.
Do you let the fishmaster squeeze into the chow line ahead of you? Is there some unwritten nautical etiquette that dictates your giving way? I had to decide instantly. The guy was standing right next to me. I played it safe and compromised. I didn’t let him in ahead of me for the steak, but I lingered long enough to let him beat me to the vegetables.
(TOP: Part of the processing operation. A final cleaning of fish before they proceed to the “candling” station for inspection.1988 photo by Mike Sutter)