Mr. Noodle

Mr. Noodle
Mr. Noodle

Saturday, August 28, 2010

as the fish go by

A few reflections on working alongside the commercial fishing industry:

There is a type of fish that is called hake. Hake are about 40-60cm long (15-20"), have wispy fins, are silver and scaly. They have an enzyme that causes their bodies to start rotting the minute they die, so when the fishing vessels go out and bring in hundreds of tons in one day, they have to make sure they are sufficiently cold.

I'll back up: before a commercial fishing vessel goes out, they have their holds (the bellies of the boat) filled with ice. If it's a hook-and-line boat, they also get bait (usually squid or octopus). Some of the hook-and-line boats are out fishing for a week so they need the fish to remain cold until they come into offload.

Hake vessels, depending on where the school of hake is, often go out and come back in the same day, belly full of fish. These hundreds of tons are sucked out of the holds onto a conveyor belt. There are usually three or four people on the line called graders who pick out anything that is not hake. There are separate totes for dogfish, Yellowtail (called 'greenies'), flat fish, salmon, or rockfish. The hake go by on the conveyor belt and into a huge tote that holds 1000 - 1300 pounds. There is ice on the bottom, ice on the top, a lid gets placed on and the forklift takes the tote and put them in a truck.

My job in this matter is to write down the weights of the totes when they are full of fish. At the end of the offload, I compare my numbers with the plant's tally person and it is important that we match. Another one of my duties for a hake offload is to take what is called a Length/Sex frequency.

So this means I go up to the conveyor belt with a board with a ruler on it, filleting knife and pencil in hand. Usually I have gloves on too, some plastic sleeves, and my high-visibility vest. I am required to sample 100-120 fish to see how long they are and what sex they are.

Measuring a fish's length is fairly straightforward. But to sex the fish I have to cut a line in the belly of the fish, see if they have an egg sac or gonads, and then with my pencil I put a tick at that part of the board either on the male or female side of the line. Yes, it is a messy business. Fish guts. When I'm done the sampling I put the fish back on the belt.

After about 100 fish (and you do lose count after a while) I go and give my board and knife and pencil a rinse. Next I have to transfer the numbers from the board to the paper I'll fax to the office later. I'll write something like '45' under the centimeters column, '8' in the frequency column, then '1' in the sex column (for male) or '2' for female. (I know, I know, I didn't make these codes up).

Now even though salmon are a prohibited species, they do sometimes come up. We have to do the same procedure with these but in this case it's with every salmon. And, if the salmon is missing its adipose fin (the fin at the top just before the tail), that means it's a tagged salmon and the head must be removed, I have to stick a tag attached to a piece of string to the head. This requires sticking my finger through the gills and out the mouth with a now bloody piece of string and somehow tying a knot with gloved hands. Not as easy as it sounds. It's during this process that I think a plastic crochet hook would come in really handy.

What do I do with the head? Stick it or them into a plastic bag, fill out more paperwork (including where the fish was caught), and then take it back to the office freezer. At some point someone (who?) comes along and takes them away.

Another part of my job is to tag halibut. Every halibut that is legally caught will have a tag in its tail. This requires the same protective clothing (gloves, sleeves) and rain gear (overalls) if I remember. Lately I've been provided with an extra person just to do the tagging for me if there is a busy offload, but not yesterday.

The halibut, maybe 30-40 of them, get placed into a net that holds about 1,200 pounds, gets lifted off the vessel by crane and then placed/dumped on the halibut table. This is a large (10x10 feet) slanted stainless steel table with rails on the slanting sides and open spaces at the bottom for the slime and ice to drip out from. The plant guys flip the fish over so the white sides of the halibut are facing up, and then I come with my gun and tags.

The gun is the same that they use (I think) in clothing stores when they apply labels to clothing. You know those annoying little clear plastic T-shaped bars? Those ones. I have to stick the needle part of the gun through the tail, pull the trigger, and pull the needle out of the tail. I also have to note down the number of the start tag and the last tag, so I can get a count of how many fish there were.

This is also a messy job but I confess it's one of the aspects of my job that I like the most. I don't know why - maybe because it's physical? The plant guys are usually quite cheerful and we get the work done.

Yesterday was an especially long day. I was originally called to do one or two boats, but it turned into five. Fishing is terrible at the moment, so some of these offloads took an hour or less (usually we can count on three or four). At about hour seven I sent Dan a text message asking if he could bring a bunch of sandwiches for the plant guys, since we had all been going non-stop and nobody had had a break to eat. An hour later, Dan showed up with about 20 sandwiches and 2 cases of sodas. All work stopped for the few minutes it took to eat those sandwiches but you should have seen the faces of everyone. They were all so grateful to have a bit of food, a bit of sugar. Throwing fish is a very physical job and doing it on an empty stomach must be brutal. At any rate, it felt good to be able to support the work in this little way.

At this very moment, we are waiting for our in-laws to arrive.


  1. sounds very busy and messy! how do you find time to keep ur energy up?

  2. Hake offloads are generally a couple of hours long and the length/sex sampling takes only 15-20 minutes, so it's not that bad. As for tagging halibut, if there is enough fish on the boat they usually send a second person to help me - they do the tagging while I write all the numbers down.

    As for energy... the coffee flows like water in a stream. And when I remember, I bring cookies.