12 April 2014

Idiots for Dinner

I will be eating idiot rockfish for the next few nights. Although prized by the Japanese for their soft, buttery meat, idiots are not well known in the United States. Idiots are the tastiest species of rockfish and sold by the cannery for more than a dollar a pound.

23 March 2014


18 March 2014

Pacific Cod

Pacific Cod season has opened on the Sound. The Russian boatmen returned Monday for ice and bait (Argentine squid). Some will fish for halibut using pollock. There will be a mass of heavily loaded boats arriving later in the week. 

09 March 2014


As pacific cod season came to a close we worked 15 hour days. We worked in driving snow and rain. Without the sun it was very cold. A wind came down from the farthest north and blew against us on the docks. It was almost too dangerous to operate the cranes. The Russian fisherman continued to arrive, boats riding low in the water with p-cod, their holds and decks overflowing. They came in one after the other as the week came to an end. It was necessary for the Russians to arrive before Sunday so as not to violate the Sabbath. Their wives met them on the dock, dressed in long colorfully patterned dresses and their heads wrapped.
We unloaded boat after boat, the Filipino pitchers down in the holds filling buckets and me and the other forklift driver emptying those buckets into totes and weighing them. When the sun went down behind the mountains the wind blew upon us and the dock turned to ice. 
On Saturday night the ice machine broke. The blue crane began to leak hydraulic fluid and quit. One of the new guys had had enough in the hold and climbed out of the boat. He was done. Boots was now down there alone and I turned the forklift over to the crew lead. I took the lifejacket off the new guy as he came up and I went down myself.
It was the slimmest of holds, hardly room for a man, and the p-cod were stacked far back into it in both directions. I called Boots up and went down. I sunk down deep into the blood and guts and began gaffing p-cod in the eye and throwing them up to Boots who tossed them in the bucket.
We worked that way until it was done. I was back on the forklift for the last boat. The long-bearded Russian followed me to the scale to verify the weights on the totes of fish. We would finish before midnight and the Sabbath. We removed the fish off the decks of the three other Russian boats and delayed the unloading of the holds until Monday.

01 March 2014

Back in AK

When the rains ended and the mist from the melting snow had parted, the proud mountains were again visible. It was cold and clear and we worked four Russian boats, each with 35,000 lbs of pacific cod and some skate and rockfish and pollock mixed in. We separated the large sized p-cod from the smaller and sent the separated fish to different lines for their processing. A sea otter swam on his back in the turquoise waters of the harbor, snacking and rolling playfully. A pair of bald eagles landed on the ice house and watched us on the dock.
We worked into darkness. The bearded Russian fisherman looked on. They let their beards grow after they married. The only boats in the water fishing p-cod were the Russians. At $0.30/lb. it kept many of the long line boats from fishing.
The Conquest was the final boat of the day and from it I selected a beautiful 8 lb. yellow eye rockfish to purchase from the cannery. I paid the wholesale price which meant the freshly caught yellow eye was just $5, food for this night and perhaps two more. After finishing the boat, I fileted it on the dock, careful to avoid its sharp and dangerous quills. It cooked quickly in the pan and made for a fine supper. It was very good to be back in the far North.

29 December 2013

A Death On The Dock

It was a beautiful late summer day. Salmon season was ending and the seiners were coming into the harbor after two months of fishing on the Sound. A seiner was docked at the crane and having its nets and a small skiff lifted up onto the pier. The Kaylor T had made its last contracted trip and the big tender was next in line. The captain was in the Fisherman's Lounge. He wanted a huge section of steel housing removed from the deck and put into storage at the cannery until next season.

The Plant Manager directed Francisco Flores to get the old mobile crane truck. The captain of the Kaylor T was an old friend. There was no reason to call him from the lounge to move the tender to the dock-mounted crane.

Francisco Flores advanced the old mobile crane to the edge of the dock above the Kaylor T and secured the stabilizer legs. He extended the boom out and began to lower the hook. It was low tide and the boat was far below the dock in the water. Francisco Flores let out a lot of cable to get the hook down to One-Eyed Eddie. The section of metal housing they were to move covered half the deck. Nobody had any idea what it weighed. Eddie secured the big four-ways sling to each of the corners and clasped the hook to it. "Winch up! Winch up!" Eddie yelled, signaling with his index finger.

Francisco Flores began to slowly bring in cable, lifting the massive section of ship housing up off the Kaylor T. It was halfway up to the dock when they heard it. It started as a wail, just audible over the engine of the boom truck. The wailing grew louder and louder, and then it was an ear piercing screeching. The Dock Lead yelled at Francisco Flores to put it down, put it down! The front stabilizing legs on the boom truck were bending, the steel shrieking, and as Francisco Flores lowered the load, the legs snapped, pitching the boom truck forward, skidding across the pavement and crashing into the low wooden barrier at the dock edge, and Francisco Flores was ejected from the cockpit of the crane truck out over the edge of the dock.

His head hit two rungs on the dock ladder before he landed on his back on the deck of the Kaylor T. Francisco Flores had fallen more than thirty feet. His hard hat lay beside him, cracked in half.

Eddie was the first to him. The left side of Francisco Flores' head was cleaved open and there were bits of brain in his hair. He lay upon the steel cover of a fish hold, blood pooling under him. His eyes were open and he seemed to respond as Eddie knelt beside him, talking to him.

Someone pulled Eddie away and the lady from human resources kneeled down and started pumping his chest. Blood sputtered from Francisco Flores' mouth. Eddie yelled at her to stop; his back could be broken and the CPR could kill him. But she continued pumping his chest, and listening for breathing, until finally Francisco Flores groaned and the last air went out of him. There was nothing more to be done.

On the dock the Plant Manager had called over two forklift drivers. He told them to pick up and move the damaged mobile crane truck. He wanted it moved off the dock and taken across the street and put inside the welding shop.  He wanted it moved as quickly as possible.

The forklift drivers had just gotten the mobile crane truck off the dock when an ambulance and two police cruisers arrived. On the deck of the boat the EMS team declared Francisco Flores dead. There was nothing to be done for him. The police officers were furious. The mobile crane had been moved, disturbing the accident scene. The Plant Manager was told he was likely to be charged with evidence tampering.

The company lawyer was immediately dispatched to a tiny pueblo in Chihuahua, Mexico to deliver the bad news to the wife of Francisco Flores and his four children, as well as a check for $25,000, if only SeƱora Flores would sign three documents, inconveniently written in English, a language she could neither speak nor read. The cannery pledged to put up half the money for the funeral and the lady from human resources, who had unsuccessfully performed CPR on Francisco Flores, collected the remainder in worker donations.

A meeting was called on the dock. The Plant Manager announced that in memory of Francisco Flores the mobile crane truck would no longer be used. He explained that Francisco Flores had made a grave error in attempting to lift a load clearly in excess of the capacity of the mobile crane. It never should have been attempted. The lady from human resources added that Francisco Flores had been negligent in filling out the daily safety checklist and signing his name to it, as all equipment operators are required. After the meeting, One-Eyed Eddie dropped a pallet of frozen herring on the Plant Manager's BMW and got himself permanently banned from driving a forklift.

Today, in the employee break room, there hangs on the far wall in the corner and only partly obscured by the Pepsi machine, a framed photograph of Francisco Flores standing on the dock and smiling broadly, and beneath it the caption, "We Will Always Remember, 1970-2012."

23 December 2013

Pitching Fish

It was the fifth boat of the day. I was crouched in the corner of the ship hold, my hard hat pressed against the ceiling. Beneath us were thousands of pounds of halibut and black cod hidden under ice.

"Send down the weapons! Send down the weapons!" Jorge shouted up to crane operator.

The large metal bucket containing plastic shovels and ice picks descended into the hold.

We each took a shovel or ice pick and started to break apart the ice and shovel the chunks into the bucket. Hunched over in the cramped space it was difficult to work quickly.

The bucket filled and Jorge shouted, "Cease fire, men! Cease fire!" He shouted at the crane operator, "Up! Up! Up!"

The bucket craned up out of the hold. We continued to break apart the ice with our shovels and picks.

"Coming down! Coming down!"

I looked up and the bucket was coming down through the opening and I crawled to the side. We filled the bucket with ice. We filled buckets with ice until we dug down to the black cod. The next empty bucket came down and the Filipinos started pitching black cod into it.

"Cod! Cod!" Shouted Jorge.

There were black cod flying over your head, behind you, past your face. You dug through the ice and grabbed them around the tail, one in each hand and pitched them two at a time into the bucket. You gripped them hard or they slipped from your hands. You pitched them as fast as you could.

We pitched the center of the hold so that the bucket descended to the floor. Then we pitched the sides. My clothes were drenched with sweat under my raingear. The level of fish had dropped and I was able to stand up.

We worked through the twenty-five thousand pounds of black cod and reached the halibut. The halibut you grabbed under the chin where they were gutted, or by the tail if they were smaller, and heaved the big flat fish into the bucket. The big ones needed two guys to lift them and a few had to be roped through the mouth and craned out.

We finished pitching the halibut and shoveled the last ice off the bottom of the hold and we climbed up onto the deck. It was cloudy and the light was fading. Beyond the bay were black clouds over the snowcapped mountains. A storm was blowing in from the Pacific.

We weren't on break for long when the crew chief came in and told us there were seven more boats to pitch. Breaks would be short for the rest of the day. It was time to go back out. We quietly pulled on our raingear.

It was dark now and the wind was blowing a gale. Sleet stung at my face. I put on my life jacket and hard hat and descended the ladder onto the boat with the others. A deckhand positioned a floodlight to shine into the hold. One side was a bin of black cod and the other was halibut. There was little ice. I lowered myself down and climbed atop the black cod. We waited quietly. Jorge yelled for the bucket.

The bucket came down and we began pitching black cod into it. The gusting winds rocked the boat and we often lost our footing and fell. We worked down through the cod and pulled the bin boards and handed them up to the deckhand. We filled bucket after bucket. Then we started on the halibut.

As the first bucket of halibut lifted out of the hold, the boat rocked hard and slammed against the dock piles. I grabbed a bin board to keep from falling, and something fell into the hold and hit Jorge and he went down. The little Mexican lay face down not moving. Next to him was a big halibut, at least a hundred pounder. The bucket was twenty feet above us, swinging wildly in the wind. One of the Mexicans talked to him in Spanish. Jorge mumbled something about his tomato farm in Mexico.

We didn't touch him. After a few minutes he sat up on his own. The halibut had glanced off the back of his hardhat and landed on his lower back. Two of the Mexicans got out of the hold and we passed Jorge up to them. They helped him to the infirmary and we finished pitching the halibut.

After the next boat, two Filipinos quit and went back to their rooms. It was very cold and the wind and sleet pounded the last boats. There were only four of us pitching. I didn't feel my toes. My hands hurt so much I could hardly grip the cod to pitch them. Nobody said anything. The pitching went very slowly. We didn't finish the last boat until after two o'clock in the morning.
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