The life of a fisherman is in no way comparable to that of a normal American with their 9-5 job. It’s a stressful world up here – the pressure a captain faces to find the fish otherwise he and his crew go home empty handed, the stress of the crew working out on deck in rough seas as waves crash over the boat walls and thrash them around. One slip and you plunge into the icy arctic where the survival rate is less than 10% for man overboard cases. It’s a dangerous lifestyle, not for the faint of heart, but what an adventure it is! Along with the danger of the job comes an element of excitement, one that you cannot find working in an office. Every step is carefully placed otherwise you lose balance and fall over in the pitching boat – every meal is a challenge to eat as your food slides from one side of the plate to the other – every shower you take your arms and legs are pressing against the walls trying to get as much contact as possible to avoid dancing around in there and falling all over the place. Life out at sea is a life unlike any other, and that’s the draw…it’s an amazing experience, one that you can only find on a boat.
The world of fishing is a pretty amazing spectacle – the art of going hundreds of miles out to sea to find small patches of fish in the wide expanse of ocean that surrounds you is an incredible talent that the captain has learned over decades of experience. Unfortunately there is a confidentiality conflict with me discussing the dynamics of my particular boat and its workings, but I can still give the general idea of how things work up here. In the pollock fishing industry (which is where I’m working now) trawler boats head out from port and steam anywhere from five hours to three days out looking for fish. These boats range from small, mom and pop boats about fifty feet long, to huge factory processors over three hundred feet long. My boat is a mid size vessel, about 150 feet in length, which is a great size because there is still a small enough crew (six of us total) that we’ve still got a homey atmosphere, but big enough to stand its own grand when the waves get pretty nasty. Don’t get me wrong, 150 feet is nothing when the waves start picking up and we are definitely getting thrown around out there, but its nothing like those smaller boats that are completely at the mercy of the sea.
Once the captain makes the call, the boat drops the nets and depending on how good the fishing is, they can be in the water from anywhere between one and fifteen hours. Depending on the size of the boats, the nets can hold somewhere from twenty tons of fish up to several hundred tons. Once the nets are full, they are pulled back on board where they are dumped into holding tanks, then re-set to start the process all over again. When all the tanks are full, the boat heads back to port where the fish are offloaded to a giant factory. This is where things get interesting…the factory uses huge tubes that they lower into the holding tanks and these literally act as giant vacuums, sucking the fish out at a rate of about one ton of fish per minute! The fish are sucked up onto a giant conveyer belt where workers will sort through the catching, removing unwanted like jellyfish and skates, as well as damaged product that will be used as fishmeal. Part of my job description involves monitoring the offload process so I get to meet all the fascinating characters that work up in the factory. The diversity is unbelievable, these workers come from anywhere and everywhere – many from islands like Guam and Fiji but also from southeast Asia, south America, Africa and even some eastern Europeans. They’re a lively bunch, and all working hard (12 hour shifts, 7 days a week) to earn a living, and it’s an awesome time getting to know them.
So what is it that I do on the boats? basically all the fisheries in the USA are monitored for overfishing and there are permits set and fish caps and things like that to make sure we don’t overfish. Well, the only way they collect that data is by sending people like me out on the fishing boats to actually collect the data first hand. So the overall goal of my job is to keep an account of the activity that goes on, what kinds of fish and how many are caught. I also collect biological data to assess the population dynamics of the fish. Whenever my boat pulls up the net, I have to get three samples (one at the beginning when they start dumping out the bag of fish, one in the middle, and one at the end). For each sample I gather three buckets of fishies, each bucket holding about 50 fish and weighing nearly 40kg. Then with each bucket I count all the fish, identify each species and weigh them all. Next I have to sex and measure a certain percentage depending on what species we’re catching. Then with some fish I have to do maturity scans, that way we can determine the maturity of the fish in the population, and also I get to collect otoliths (which is really cool). Otoliths are two little bones in the skull that help the fish orient itself in the water, and I’m not sure what kind of data they collect from the otoliths, but that’s not my job I just get to collect them which is the fun part. That’s basically it, it’s not too complicated and it’s pretty interesting seeing how these fishing boats work in the real world. Before heading up to Alaska I figured it would be a good thing to know where your food comes from, in this case the fish we eat, so that’s where my inspiration to come up here and work on these boats started. I also think it gives me a different kind of respect for both the fish and the fishing industry, this way I can see how much effort it takes to catch these little buggers and understand how they came from the sea to my plate!
My boat, just after pulling into the docks and beginning to offload. You can see the yellow cranes holding up the giant vacuum tubes that suck the fish out of our tanks.
Pulling up the nets
Dumping the fish from the bag into the tanks
Inside the factory
Sorting the catch – a big jellyfish here.