The Catch, Pt. 9: Cruel and unusual

Part 9 of my uncle Mike Sutter’s journal from a factory fishing trawler in the Bering Sea
By Mike Sutter | The Bering Sea | 1988
I am a meat and fish and poultry eater and it doesn’t bother me that creatures have to be slaughtered to fill my plate. But I think the creatures should be killed in a business-like way, quickly, just to show a little respect. It is difficult to sympathize with a fish, but they should be treated the same way. I wish some of my fellow processors felt the same. If they did, they wouldn’t disgust me so much.
A big halibut was brought aboard in the net. It was a huge fish — 4.5 feet long and 3 feet wide. It was still alive, still flopping when it came out of the holding tank onto the conveyor. Someone threw the halibut to the floor, tied a rope around its tail and began dragging it. Another person jumped on its back and yelled, “Look, I’m skateboarding.”
The halibut was hoisted up and tied to a rail. It was bleeding and struggling, and its gills were laboring to extract oxygen from the air. I stared at it for awhile and walked away and I felt very badly for that fish.
But cruelty is common on the sorting line. I stay away whenever possible, but sometimes I have to work there until frozen fillets arrive at my packing station, and so I am an involuntary witness. Cod that are still flopping invariably receive blows to their heads. One particular kid is a specialist at this and seems to derive great pleasure from it. He has a diabolical, excited grin on his face as he throws his punches, and when the fish is dead, the kid looks around to see if anyone is watching and sharing his glee. Another man sorts fish with his knife instead of his hands.
A lamprey eel is held against the glass of a floodlight and, following its instincts, attaches itself to the glass with its mouth. It hangs there, wiggling and baking to death while its human torturer laughs at the “practical joke” he has just pulled on the eel. A lot of mirth and shouts of “watch this” accompany these amusements.
It is difficult to understand these ugly, sadistic acts, even if the victim is as repulsive as a lamprey eel. If these people subconsciously feel that they must do these things to demonstrate their superiority over these creatures, then I believe that superiority is in question.
NEXT: Troubled waters when the crew finds out that after two months of fishing, some of them owe money to the company. Part of a letter my uncle wrote to an attorney gives a preview: “When I was hired, I was told that I could expect to bring home $6,000 for three months of work. At no time was I told that our earnings might be zero or that we might owe the company money. I cannot comprehend working hundreds of hours and seeing hundreds of tons of fish pile up in the hold and end up owing money to the company. If the fishing had been poor, I could more easily accept a poor financial outcome, but our Norwegian fishmaster was renowned for his ability to catch fish, and the fishing was excellent. A crewmember from another trawler remarked that his ship processed about 40 tons of fish per day. We often had twice that tonnage in one netful.”
(TOP PHOTO: The glass hatches on the right are opened and the fish pour out of the holding tank onto a conveyor belt that carries them through the processing operation. The fish the crewman is holding is a halibut which will be dumped back into water, unfortunately dead or dying. 1988 photo by Mike Sutter)